Steamboat Bill, Jr., was the last independently produced feature of Buster Keaton. It is also for this reason that the film is regularly quoted as his last great work. Due to his well-documented perfectionism, Keaton did multiple takes of several shots; as a result, production costs soared. In the end, however, it was the fact that, like The General (1927) before it, Steamboat Bill, Jr. did not do so well with audiences as it had been expected. How apt that a film about a man struggling to be accepted should also be the film that ended Keaton’s now celebrated career as an auteur.
Although it is best known for its conclusive spectacular and cathartic closing sequence, and that stunt in which Keaton (the character and the real human being) is almost crushed by the front facade of a building, in the first three-quarters of its duration, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a compelling film about a troubled father son relationship.
Bill, Jr. (Keaton) travels to a muddy town in the South to meet his estranged father, Bill, Sr. (Ernest Torrance). Bill, Sr. is an old fashioned steam paddler; he is immediately excited by the emergence of a son to take over the family business. However, his hopes are soon shattered; the man who meets him is a scrawny looking awkward feller, who wears an insufferable beret and plays the ukelele. To make matters worse, Bill, Jr. falls in love with a pretty lady named Marion (Marion Byron), who just so happens to be the daughter of his arch-rival, Mr. King (Tom McGuire).
Adding another layer to this Shakespearean type of coming-of-age narrative is the rivalry between Bill, Sr. and Mr. King: the first represents the traditionalist tradesmen; the latter represents the progressive entrepreneur. Needless to say, this was a theme that would particularly resonate in the United States during the Great Depression, which began shortly after the film’s release.
Characterization is very important in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Bill, Jr.’s stubbornness is commendable: he refuses to be untrue to himself. Yet, in one of the most memorable sequences, he finds himself in a haberdashery as his father insists on him buying a new hat and lose the beret. As he tries one after another, his entire character seems to change. The film crosses paths with real life when one of the hats he wears and rejects is the same type of pork pie hat with a short flat crown he had worn for many years in earlier works; a remarkable act of self-parody. On a dramatic level, this particular scene also represents Keaton’s ability to represent, in an extreme way but with great simplicity, a universally relatable dilemma: in this case, it was that unbearable lightness of being true to your own self.
In the end, the compelling drama comes to an unexpected conclusion as the characters are faced with an event that is beyond their control: a meteorological phenomenon: a cyclone. This conclusion mixes laughs and scared. Despite its breathtaking nature, it feels very real, conveyed in continuous action, relying less on montage than other sequences of its kind, either shot by Keaton or other slapstick comedians at the time.
Again, poetry: could this cyclone be an externalization of the inner psychological tensions of our leading characters? Certainly, the extremeness of this situation should scare the self-absorbed characters into confronting their own mortality. In the midst of this chaos, Keaton finds himself interpreting once again a man who has to play the unlikely hero. His fight against the forces of nature appears to represent his fight against the coldness of the preordained patterns of “audience taste,” which rarely coincides with “good taste.” Yet, Buster Keaton is a true auteur, and, yes, the fight is tremendous. But in the end, it is his uniqueness that makes his works so highly praised by all to this day. – ★★★★★
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. | 1928, United Stated | Comedy | Directed by – Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton / Produced by – Joseph M. Schenck / Written by – Carl Harbaugh, Buster Keaton / Cinematography – Dev Jennings, Bart Haines / Edited by – Sherman Kell / Starring – Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, Tom McGuire, Tom Lewis, James T. Mack / Running time: 71 mins.