Well, we’ve made it to the end of the independent era for Keaton and in my opinion, he went out on top. I’ll say it right now: STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. is my absolute favorite out of all of Buster Keaton’s films!
The story of this one involves Keaton meeting up with his father for the first time since he was a child while getting caught in the middle of a feud between his father and Mr. King. Unfortunately for Keaton, it turns out his love interest is the daughter of Mr. King. While the romance is important to the story, much like in GO WEST, it takes a backseat to a much larger theme: the relationship between father and son. They pull this off very well, and I think a lot of it has to do with the performance of Ernest Torrence. While he does look pretty intimidating at first, as the film goes along, you do get the idea that this is someone who really does care for his son and wants to be able to accept him, but Keaton keeps making it too hard for him. A lot of this comes from how expressive Torrence can be with his face. Sure, he gets angry a lot, but there are also moments where he does look genuinely concerned for Keaton and even kind of confused over whether he really should be mad at him or not. One moment I’ve always loved is when he escapes but Keaton gets knocked out by the jailer, rather than escape, he instead goes back and gives the jailer what he had coming to him, despite knowing he’ll have to go back to prison. It was a nice way to stick up for his son and I’ve always thought it was a very touching moment.
Besides Torrence, the rest of the supporting cast does very well. Marion Byron plays Keaton’s love interest and much like Natalie Talmadge in OUR HOSPITALITY is given an interesting situation of choosing between Keaton and family values. She briefly leaves him, though you actually can understand her reason. She thinks that Keaton stood her up and while we did see why Keaton couldn’t get to the ship in time, we can still understand why she feels that way, yet we still see that she does sympathize with Keaton when his father is taken away. Beyond this, we’ve also got Tom Lewis and Tom McGuire in relatively small, but still somewhat important roles, and even Keaton’s own father Joe as the barber who shaves Keaton early in the film.
Then there’s the comedy as well. STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. has a lot of variety to its comedy, thanks to its constantly flowing narrative. We’ve got the hat gag that later turned up in 3 DUMB CLUCKS. I love 3 DUMB CLUCKS and still think it was done pretty well there, but Keaton and Torrence’s timing does feel a lot better here. Keaton insists on one hat that Torrence gets more and more fed up with and we even get a little in-joke with the long-gone pork pie hat. We also get various gags on the boat: Keaton accidentally moving the boat and knocking the others over, Keaton fighting with the officer on the “King,” Keaton falling into the water overnight. One of my favorite gags is during the nighttime sequence: Keaton hears someone coming while setting up the board, so he pretends to be asleep, despite the fact that he’s already outside and will be caught anyway! The stuff in the jail is pretty good as well: I love how Keaton misses the jailer’s chin and inadvertently knocks him out as a result; a very funny way to get Torrence out of the prison.
The storm sequence is too amazing for words. Lots of stuff flying around as well as buildings falling over give this sequence a lot of intensity, yet Keaton still finds a lot of humor during this sequence as well; he gets a chance to explore a stage with tricks and tries to find his balance throughout the sequence in a way that only Keaton could make funny. Then of course there’s the famous wall scene. If Keaton had been only 2 inches off from the correct mark, he would have died! This really goes to show Keaton’s dedication to entertaining his audience. The film ends with the two captains making peace and a funny closing gag involving a priest. A very satisfying ending.
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR., to me, is the quintessential Keaton film. It gets the comedy right, it gets the drama right, and it maintains the excitement of a short like THE BOAT (though it works better here since it’s in a feature). I love this film a lot and plan on coming back to it many times in the future.
10 out of 10