Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On Screen -- Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

I have to say, I think "Steamboat Bill Jr." is one of the funniest films I have ever seen.  Like I've said before, if first impressions of a film mean anything to you then you know you're in for a great one.  Riverboat captain "William Canfield" (Ernest Torrence) is awaiting the arrival of his son "William Canfield Jr. aka Steamboat Bill Jr." (Buster Keaton) whom he hasn't seen since he was a child.  With Keaton's first appearance in the film standing on the wrong side of the train platform while his father is trying to find him, and then his proceeding to go from one stranger to another showing his carnation like an ID badge the laughs are practically nonstop.  He told his father that he would recognise him because he would be wearing a white carnation, but so is everyone else on the train.

  Much to the captain's dismay Bill Jr.'s  arrival is somewhat of a disappointment to him and his crew.  Bill Jr. turns out to be totally unskilled and unmotivated as far as joining his father in the operation of his riverboat business.  As his father tries to whip him into shape by getting him shaved and buying him a new wardrobe, Bill Jr. meets and falls in love with "Kitty" (a petite and perky Marion Byron), who also happens to be the daughter of  Bill Sr.'s business rival.  Anyone who can take the simple task of trying on a hat and turning the action into a comedy masterpiece is a genius.  Despite both men's objections Bill Jr. spends the rest of the film trying to prove himself to Kitty.

The film is chock full of signature Buster Keaton stunts, some so daring it's been said that even some of the camera crew had to "look the other way" while filming some of them, and Keaton executes them with surgical precision.  The special effects and stunts in the storm scene are remarkable given what they had to work with and the technology available to them at that time.  The musical score by the Alloy Orchestra works well with the film but seems a little overpowering at times.  I'd like to try to find a version of the film with the original score and compare the two.

This was the last film by Buster Keaton while working as an independent film producer and was released one year after the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer (1927).  It was really the last film that Keaton would have total control over because he usually financed his films with his own money as an independent filmmaker.  He went on to sign with and work for the MGM film factory, the studio that frequently boasted that they had " more stars than there are in heaven ...", so obviously they couldn't concentrate their attentions on only one performer no matter how popular they were.  Unfortunately the quality of following Keaton films were not up to par with this one due to his limited power.

It's not too often that I actually laugh out loud during a film, but there are a barrel full of laughs here.  For me, Buster Keaton remains one of the undisputed kings of slapstick.  Enjoy ...

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