by Brandie Ashe
When it comes to silent comedy, three names generally loom largest: Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. And while all three have their respective strengths, and in their time crafted some of the most memorable comedies ever produced in Hollywood, for me, Keaton will always be the clown prince of them all. It’s not just that Buster Keaton was an almost unnaturally gifted comedian—Chaplin and Lloyd, too, were uncommonly talented filmmakers. But I find that, with Keaton’s films, the laughs are simply greater and more imaginatively presented than those manufactured by his colleagues. Chaplin’s work had a great deal of humanity; Lloyd’s had a deliciously antic silliness; but Keaton—well, Keaton’s work had a truly exceptional grace. There is an odd elegance to Keaton’s comedy, a strategically balletic sense to his movements onscreen. Every action is precisely timed for maximum comedic impact, and even the most unrealistic of situations becomes lively and viable in Keaton’s capable hands.
Take, for instance, one of Keaton’s final silent features, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). Keaton plays the title character (known as “Willie”), the natty son of a rugged Mississippi steamboat captain (Ernest Torrence). Willie has been raised by his mother in Boston and has not seen his father since he was an infant. After completing college, Willie visits his father, who is less than pleased by his not-quite-manly boy. While Bill futilely tries to make his son over in his own image, Willie reunites with his college sweetheart, Kitty (Marion Byron), whose father, John James King (Tom McGuire), just happens to be Bill’s bitter riverboat competitor. When their rivalry comes to a head and Bill is tossed into jail, Willie must find a way to spring his dad, save the family business, and finally get his girl. And if that’s not enough, Willie also has to deal with the problematic effects of an oncoming hurricane.
The film functions, at times, as a kind of weird hybrid of Romeo and Juliet, The Perils of Pauline, and a highly condensed Bildungsroman. And while a good deal of the movie’s humor relies on Keaton’s patented stunt gags, the uneasy relationship between father and son is played for quite a few laughs. Bill’s impatience with Willie results in a series of great reaction shots from Torrence, particularly in the scene in which he first meets his son. As Willie dances with his ukulele, trying to calm a crying baby by prancing and high-stepping back and forth, the look on Bill’s face—a combination of horror and sheer disbelief—is priceless. It’s a look that recurs throughout the film, as Willie gets into scrape after unintentional scrape—and the reaction is not unique to Bill. When Kitty steps in and dresses Willie in her version of “acceptable” work clothes, Bill’s confounded first mate, Tom (Tom Lewis), hands his boss a wrench, claiming, “No jury would convict you.”
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is (rightly) notorious for its wild and potentially dangerous stunts, and the most famous of those are a result of that late-in-the-film storm. Amidst the powerful wind and rain, Willie embarks on a series of inadvertent adventures: the hospital he is in is lifted from its foundations, leaving him to dive under his covers as his bed is pushed down the street by the fierce gales; a house façade collapses around Willie, only sparing him when an open window clears his frozen form by inches (perhaps the most iconic scene from the film, all told); his body is flung about like a rag doll as he vainly seeks shelter from the storm; an entire house falls on top of our hapless hero (at which point Willie nonchalantly frees himself by walking out the front door); and, perhaps craziest of all, he clings helplessly to a tree as a cyclone lifts it by its roots and sends it flying through the air, finally dumping Willie into the river. And that’s not even touching the highly physical final scenes of the film, in which Willie heroically rescues Kitty, saves both his father and hers from drowning (resolving the family feud in the process), and precipitates his own “happily ever after” courtesy of a minister who just happens to float by.
If it all seems a bit much on paper, in the context of the film, every scene—every improbable incident—flows together seamlessly, moving swiftly from one gag to the next. Rather than rely solely on special effects, Keaton accomplishes much of this action through deceptively simple and painfully exact staging, putting his body and well-being at risk (as he had done for years) for the sake of the bit— to shock the greatest laugh, the biggest “how did he DO that?” reaction from his audience as he could. And if you’ve seen this film, you know Keaton succeeded at his goal, and quite brilliantly at that.
Even the less physically-demanding gags are bursting with humorous, yet precise choreography. Of particular note is the scene in which Willie tries to bring his imprisoned father some tools disguised in a large loaf of bread. As the sheriff watches him suspiciously, Willie tries to mime the contents of the bread to his father, pretending to saw off his thumb with an intricate dance of his hands as Bill looks on in confusion and rolls his eyes to the heavens. Chaos ensues when the jailbreak tools fall out and clatter onto the floor: in the space of the subsequent four minutes, Willie tries—and fails—to run, knocks out the sheriff, sits on the man’s face, partially removes his pants in order to reach a set of keys, and ends up being sent to the hospital after receiving a blow to the head courtesy of the understandably ticked-off lawman. This entire incident in the film is an intricate dance between these three characters, with an economy of movement that is wondrous to see in the relatively constricted space of the jailhouse set.
Indeed, the composition of some of the scenes in Steamboat Bill, Jr. is nothing less than remarkable. Early in the film, Willie’s horrified father attempts to “un-dandify” his son by taking him to a barbershop (to remove the “barnacle” of a mustache from his lip) and later a hat shop (to replace the boy’s foppish beret). Bill wants his son to wear something plain and utilitarian; Willie’s eye is caught by the furthest thing from it, a garishly plaid golfer’s cap. He puts on the cap; his father rips it off. When Bill turns his back, Willie dons it again, only to see it torn off twice more. The three men—father, son, haberdasher—form a well-timed “bucket brigade,” of sorts, with the shopkeeper placing a hat on Willie’s head, Willie preening in the mirror, and Bill disgustedly tossing it aside. The entire scene is superbly framed so that the camera serves as Willie’s “mirror,” allowing him to play directly to the audience. After four or five poor choices (including a Chaplinesque derby), the haberdasher puts Keaton’s signature porkpie hat on his head; with widened eyes and a fleeting look of chagrin, Willie immediately reaches up and snatches it away. It’s the very definition of a tongue-in-cheek “meta” moment—the artist casting aside his typical persona, rejecting that hat’s nonetheless inescapable association with him.
And yet there’s a bit of sadness to that rejection, too, because just as Keaton symbolically rebuffed his past persona in this brief moment, so soon would audiences. Though it was a flop upon its release (precipitating Keaton’s move from independent production to a contract with MGM), Steamboat Bill, Jr. is now recognized as one of Keaton’s funniest and most inventive comedies. It also marks the apex of the comedian’s career. He made two final silent features—The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929)—before moving, somewhat reluctantly, into sound. But Keaton was never able to recapture the overwhelming success and artistic freedom he enjoyed in the 1920s, and a combination of lackluster pictures and alcoholism effectively ended his career in the early 1930s. Thankfully, the 1940s brought Keaton back to (screen) life in character roles, and behind the scenes, he functioned as a gag writer and mentor to young performers such as Lucille Ball. In later years, he was revered by a new generation of comedians who rediscovered his work as Keaton’s early films were re-released and shown on television. Today, he is remembered as a true artist, a champion of comedy and master of physicality whose work never fails to bring a smile—even if “The Great Stone Face” never would willingly crack one of his own.
How Steamboat Bill, Jr. made the Top 100: