In which cinema’s most famous stunt falls upon us.
After enjoying The General and Sherlock Jr, I approached Steamboat Bill Jr with great excitement for more of Buster Keaton’s mix of physical mastery and succinct storytelling. You know what you’re getting with a Keaton film and this delivers plenty of both.
It seems as though these three movies, widely regarded as his best, are the only ones easily found on streaming services here in the UK. Though there are plenty of trashy free copies available, the BFI channel on Amazon Prime offers impeccable restorations.
In the movie, Keaton plays the estranged son of riverboat Captain, Bill Senior. Bill’s boat is overshadowed by local businessman John King, who owns many operations within a small town. Hoping for a strapping young lad to help him, Bill Sr is disappointed in the gentle Bill Jr and seeks to teach him the ropes.
King’s daughter, Kitty, is also in town and we learn she and Bill Jr are in love from their time in Boston. Both fathers decide to keep the couple apart and find more suitable companions for their offspring. Despite his best efforts to break into King’s boat, Bill Jr is thwarted and Kitty believes he has given up on her.
King has Bill Sr’s boat condemned, meaning he can no longer make a living from it. In a rage, Bill fights King and ends up thrown into the town jail. His son comes to rescue him with a loaf of bread filled with tools, but the Sheriff catches him and father and son are forced to escape. Seeing his son captured and mistreated, Bill Sr returns to the jail to punch the Sheriff then walks freely back into his cell.
Suddenly, a cyclone hits the town, blowing over houses and forcing the residents into storm cellars. Here, Keaton is in his element as he struggles against the winds. We’re treated to his most famous stunt as the façade of a house seems to fall onto him, only for the window to fall over Keaton, saving him. Almost as impressive is the sight of Keaton clinging to a tree that blows at double speed across the town to dump him into the river.
While the set piece offers an inventive backdrop for Keaton’s slapstick and stunt performances, it’s a shame to see the story interrupted. At the point the cyclone arrives, we’re halfway through a character study along the lines of Romeo and Juliet, with two fathers (albeit not alike in dignity) keeping two steamboat crossed lover apart. There’s also the developing father and son bond between Bills Sr and Jr, as well as the steamboat rivalry.
Of course, it’s foolish to wish away the incredible stunts of the storm sequence. As Peter Bradshaw notes in his review for the Guardian “The final storm sequence is a breathtaking apocalypse.” Yet, Steamboat Bill Jr feels like a movie of two halves. Both wonderful in their own right, but fight rather than compliment each other when we consider the sum of their parts.
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