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It's good to know that quality Blu-ray discs of classic films are doing well: Kino's excellent BD of The General from last year has led to the release of another Buster Keaton comedy on Hi-Def, his last independent silent Steamboat Bill, Jr.. Happily for Keaton, interest in his silent comedies rebounded in the 1950s and they have remained popular ever since. Although he often shared director credit, Keaton is the acknowledged creative force behind these pictures. Steamboat Bill finds him exercising his penchant for complex physical gags to the limit of what was possible in 1928, the crowning year for silent cinema before talkies altered the playing field.
Steamboat Bill shows Keaton stretching his standard character a bit, at least at the film's beginning. Buster plays William Canfield Jr., a featherbrained college boy complete with straw hat and ukelele. Junior finds himself out of his element when he returns to the river and his father Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence). Bill expected a he-man come back to help him rejuvenate his broken-down riverboat. Bill instead judges Junior as a pantywaist, and useless on the river. Bill and his old boat are humiliated by the larger and more powerful craft run by J.J. King (Tom McGuire), a bigwig who has bought up the entire town. Junior's attempts to woo King's lovely daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) go for naught. The father rejects the son and eventually gets himself thrown in the hoosegow. Junior's chance to show that he's got what it takes comes in the form of a typhoon that wrecks the town and threatens to sink both boats.
The simple story ambles from one classic Keaton sequence to the next. Bill gets the idea that his son is a sissy partly through visual misunderstandings. Keaton acknowledges his established screen persona in a scene where pop tries to choose a proper hat for him -- one of the many hats Junior tries on is Buster's signature flat-brimmed porkpie. Junior gets rid of it before his father can see it. As in other Keaton pix in which Buster's masculinity is threatened, Junior goes through a number of humiliating situations without asserting himself, building up audience sympathy. This ancient formula works like a charm, for in act three Junior gets to vindicate himself, to the delight of the audience. Unlike some of his contemporaries with more complicated public faces, Keaton elicits immediate audience approval. Whenever he showed up in cameos in later films, no matter how minor, audiences would cheer.
The second big "gotta see it" angle to Steamboat Bill, Jr. is its spectacular finish and its many complex and often dangerous-looking stunts. A typhoon hits the town, demolishing buildings, sinking boats and blowing the jail (with Steamboat Bill in it) into the river. Keaton uses wind machines, hidden wires, breakaway buildings and even structures built to fly into the air with the help of a crane. The wind blows a car backwards down the street, with its convertible top acting as a sail. Laid up in a hospital (don't ask why) Buster suddenly finds himself outdoors as the entire building lifts off around him. He then takes a tour of another building when his hospital bed is blown around like a car in a carnival ride.
Stunned by a falling sandbag, Buster runs through some more personal gags, like mistaking a painted theatrical backdrop for reality (shades of Sherlock Jr.) and trying to make headway in a gust of wind and mud that shows him struggling with his body leaning forward at an extreme angle. Building facades crumble and other structures collapse, a series of perfectly-timed gags that leads up to what is often called Keaton's most dangerous stunt. The famous gag shows the front of a building falling forward onto Buster, who happens to be standing in the perfect spot so that a (frighteningly small) window frames him perfectly as the wall topples. Buster left himself only a couple of inches of clearance all around.
If he leaned just a bit one way or another -- or if the wall warped as it fell -- Keaton could have had half his head knocked off, or be hammered into the ground like a tent peg. Although many accidental close calls in stunts have made it into movies, nobody except Jackie Chan ever approached Keaton's level of daredevil bravado ... and I'd bet that even Chan considers Keaton the undisputed master.
The tragedy is that Buster Keaton was soon corralled into the MGM cookie cutter factory, where his autonomy disappeared and Thalberg and Mayer threw away his appeal by teaming him with obnoxious scene stealers like Jimmy Durante. True, Keaton's marital and financial troubles began before the MGM years, but it's obvious that with better handling he could have done even more interesting movies, perhaps sometimes just as a director. Ironically, the things that make Steamboat Bill a no-CGI wonder picture today are probably what brought Keaton down. I'm told that one of his biggest moneymakers was College, a relatively inexpensive comedy. But both The General and Steamboat Bill, exhorbitantly expensive productions for their day, didn't perform all that well. As unbelievable as it sounds, the nigh-perfect laugh and thrill machine The General wasn't all that popular. I'm almost willing to believe that Keaton's wife and business manager and others sought to get Keaton "under control", and succeeded only in making him unhappy by stripping him of his creative leeway. 1
The reason we keep loving Buster is that these problems don't show up in his movies, which remain delightful comedies with a slightly surreal edge. College has that jarringly creepy ending that shows us Ronald's future when he exclaims, "Gee, it can't get better than this!" With its preacher that comes out of nowhere the final shot of Steamboat Bill is just a curtain joke, but it's also a cousin to the weird imagery in Buñuel's Un chien Andalou. Other Keaton movies exploit the collision of film reality with "real" reality, and identify the cinematic cut as a fundamentally surreal phenomenon (Sherlock Jr.). The Keaton character's deadpan reaction to reality isn't "black comedy" and it's certainly not cynical or sardonic (with exceptions). But Keaton's films definitely play in the same surreal playground -- doing more interesting things! -- used by the French experimental filmmakers.
Kino International's Blu-ray of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a bright and impressively sharp rendering of this 82 year-old picture. It isn't as perfectly clean as Kino's The General, as occasional specks of white dirt are visible, and a few shots have a tiny bit of instability. But these are almost not worth mentioning. The film comes with three music score choices: The Biograph Players, an organ score by Lee Erwin and a piano score by William Perry.
The disc presentation was produced by Kino's Bret Wood. We often hear about alternate versions of silent films -- the lack of duplicating film stock in those days was solved by literally cutting a parallel negative made with a second camera. This Blu-ray includes an entire second version of the film. Some scenes are from a different angle, sometimes with different action and sometimes not. We're told that ordinary scenes might use an occasional alternate take from camera #1, while expensive or dangerous action not likely to be filmed twice are almost always seen from a second angle.
A new making-of featurette goes into quite a bit of detail about Keaton's situation at the time of the film's making, and even analyzes how he accomplished some of his stunts. A stills gallery is included, along with two ancient recordings of the song "Steamboat Bill", the tune that inspired the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Steamboat Bill, Jr. Blu-ray rates:
1. This is of course the problem with "knowing" famous personalities from their film personas -- and perhaps reading too many passionate Keaton defenders. Accounts say that Keaton was greatly liked by film people and palled around with stagehands as much as he did swanky stars, but if it's true that there are two sides to every story, concluding that he was a completely innocent victim is probably inaccurate.
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Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.