The last film that Buster Keaton made as an independent
filmmaker, Steamboat Bill Jr.
has been released in high definition on a lovely
Blu-ray disc from Kino. The story of a
steamboat captain and his effete son is a simple tale that builds to a
conclusion and includes a hilarious, and dangerous, stunt that has
classic. The Kino disc looks and sounds
great, and will be a wonderful addition to any film library.
Buster Keaton was born into a vaudeville family and started
appearing on stage with his parents at the age of three.
When he started working in film with Roscoe
Arbuckle in 1917 at the tender age of 22, he was already a seasoned
professional. By 1920 he had his own
film studio, financed by Joseph M. Schenck, and until 1928 turned out
amazingly funny series of shorts and feature films.
1928 however the film world was changing.
The cost of movies was growing rapidly and New York financers started have a
amount of influence. With the success of
The Jazz Singer all of the major studios were switching to sound
something the small independents like Keaton couldn't afford to do. Added to that was the fact that Keaton's
films hadn't been doing well at the box office.
Both College (1927) and The General
(1927) were flops (as hard
as that is to believe today) and so as production was wrapping on Steamboat
Bill Jr. (which would also fail to make it's costs back, at
least initially) Schenck pulled the plug. Keaton
would sign a lucrative contract with MGM, but he'd never be able to
the quality of his independent films at the movie factory.
Hard times followed, but Keaton persevered and
lived to see the day when he was revered as a comic genius.
Steamboat Bill Jr., Keaton's
last independent feature,
starts off a bit slow but when the comedy shifts into gear the movie
all cylinders. William Canfield (Ernest
Torrence), known as Steamboat Bill to everyone, runs an old riverboat,
Stonewall Jackson, out of a small city on the Mississippi River. John James King (Tom McGuire) already owns
the bank, the hotel, and much of the rest of the town but when he buys
fancy riverboat to compete with Bill, things look grim for the old
Bill does get some good news when he hears that his son, William
Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton) is coming home from college.
Bill Sr. hasn't seen his son since he was a
baby, but not maybe the college graduate can help in the battle between
steamboats. All ideas of Junior being an
asset fly out the window when the rough and sturdy Steamboat Bill sets
his small, weak son. Wearing an
effeminate beret, sporting a weak mustache, and carrying a ukulele,
Bill Jr, is
just the opposite of when his father was expecting.
After getting a new set of clothes (and having the mustache
shaven off) Bill Junior runs into a girl he knew in college, Kitty King
Byron) daughter of his father's rival.
Though the two youngsters hit it off, both fathers try to keep
them apart, This only intensifies the
even resorts to having The Stonewall Jackson condemned and getting Bill
thrown in jail.
This is a fun, wild film, with a few minor problems.
The biggest flaw is that it takes a while for
the action to get started. The first
reel is establishing the plot and there are few laughs.
When Bill Sr. goes looking for his son at the
train station, knowing only that he'll be wearing a white carnation,
the gag is
pretty predictable and doesn't play quite as well as it could. Soon after, when Buster gets on the screen,
the movie takes off and doesn't look back.
The scene where Buster tries to calm a crying baby by singing
dancing is hilarious, especially since his father is watching but
the infant and just thinks his son is insane.
The end of the movie where a cyclone hits is great, and clips
are often shown in documentaries on silent comedies.
This movie includes the justifiably famous
scene where Buster stands in front of a house while the whole front
on him. He's unharmed because he's
perfectly aligned with an open attic window, which he passes through
safely. In reality the façade
thousands of pounds and it's been reported frequently that the margin
was only two inches. The cameraman kept
his eyes closed, but the camera rolling, since he couldn't stand to see
boss possibly killed. That's the
highlight, but the rest of the cyclone sequence is just as impressive.
While the ending is wonderfully fun, for my money the best
sequence in the film is the jail scene.
Junior arrives at the hoosegow where his father is being held
comically long loaf of bread that's obviously hiding something. Bill Sr. is disgusted with his son however,
and won't take the loaf which leads the panicked offspring to try to
communicate what the contents are without the jailer catching on. It's a wonderful sequence that works very
well and had everyone in my family laughing steadily.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p image (untinted)
is marvelous. This Blu-ray disc easily
bests the other home video releases of this movie.
The first thing that strikes viewers is the
increased amount of detail in the picture.
The finest lines are strong and well defined, such as the
Buster Keaton's thumb during a close up of his hand holding a train
ticket. For and 80+ year old movie the
detail, contrast, and overall quality is amazing. That's
not to say that the transfer is
perfect. There are some very minor
complaints, none of which ruin the presentation. The
blacks are generally fine, but not as
deep as they could be. The title cards
especially could be a little darker. Some
of the outside scenes are just a tad too bright, and some highlights
are a bit
on the harsh side. There are some print
defects, some white spots and a few scratches, but these are fairly
uncommon. There's a natural amount of
grain, which Kino wisely left along.
That gives the movie an authentic feeling that makes you feel
been transported back to an old movie theater.
There are three audio tracks offered, a newly recorded DTS-HD
5.1 track by the Biograph Players which is also available in DD stereo
organ score by Lee Erwin. This final
was my favorite, though a lot of that had to do with personal taste. The Biograph players are a talented group of
musicians, but their score wasn't one of my favorites.
There were a few times that the music pulled
me out of the film, such as when they used the funeral march when
Steamboat Bill and his mate listening to John King's speech ragging on
ship. I thought it was an odd choice,
it was obvious that Bill wasn't about to give up just because there was
formidable competition. Some of the
added sound effects were mixed a little too high and weren't as subtle
would have liked. These aren't major
and it certainly wasn't a bad score by any means. It
just wasn't a favorite of mine.
Kino has included some nice extras. First
off there's a second version of the
film created entirely from alternate takes and camera angles. This print was softer in general but still
looked nice. It is great for Keaton
scholars and die-hard fans like me, but there is little real difference
the two versions.
The disc includes a 12-minute featurette on the making of
the film, including comparisons between the two versions, a stills
a reel of pratfalls entitled Why
They Call Him Buster. The disc is
rounded out by a pair of old
recordings of the song "Steamboat Bill."
Steamboat Bill Jr. isn't Keaton's greatest movie, but it is
a great film that looks fantastic on Blu-ray.
A wonderful movie and an outstanding image.
What more could you want? Highly
images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do not
represent the image quality on the disc.