“I’ll run on this river if I’m the only passenger on the boat.”
‘Steamboat Bill Jr’, directed by Charles Reisner in 1928, is a Buster Keaton comedy about a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ romance between the son of a failing paddle steamer captain and the daughter of a luxury riverboat owner. Keaton plays the son, William Canfield Jr. who returns from college to help his father. This father is a hardened, grizzled man who seems disappointed by his weak-looking son, but when a cyclone hits the town, Canfield Jr. shows his true metal by rescuing his father, his lover’s father and, in a final twist, a priest suitable to marry him, from drowning. As with most comedies at the time it is a film made of set-pieces, from small, acrobatic scenes of slapstick, to grand and thrilling stunts. It is this combination that distinguishes this, and Keaton’s other movies, from many of his contemporaries, Keaton and Harold Lloyd were the unlikely action heroes of their time, and you can sense the real jeopardy that they place themselves in throughout their movies. Here, the standout, almost suicidal, stunt takes place during the dramatic cyclone sequence as the façade of a house falls around him. This is a brilliant and terrifying scene, but the real highlight, as with all Keaton’s films, is in the actor’s clueless reaction to the events around him. As with Chaplin, there is an innocence to Keaton’s performance that draws you in as a viewer but also, curiously, makes him immortal despite the dangers around him. It’s a simple film, but one that tells a universal story, is packed with epic stunts and says something interesting about the economic state of America just a year before the Wall Street Crash.
Would I recommend it? Yes – for ‘that stunt’ alone, but mostly for the movie that surrounds the stunt. I’d watch in a double bill with ‘The General’ for a full blown Keaton-fest.