Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Starring Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire and Ernest Torence, the son of a steamboat captain joins his father’s crew in “Steamboat Bill Jr.”.
Run time 1h 51m
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a 1928 silent comedy film starring Buster Keaton. Released by United Artists, the film is the last product of Keaton’s independent production team and set of gag writers. It was not a box-office success and became the last picture Keaton made for United Artists. Keaton ended up moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where he made one last film in his trademark style, The Cameraman, before his creative control was taken away by the studio.
Charles Reisner directed the film, and the credited story writer was Carl Harbaugh, although Keaton wrote the script and publicly called Harbaugh useless but “on the payroll”. The film, named after a popular Arthur Collins 1911 song, “Steamboat Bill”, also featured Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, and Tom Lewis. In 2016, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The film is known for what might be considered Keaton’s most famous film stunt: The facade of an entire house falls on top of him while he stands in the perfect spot to pass through the open attic window instead of being flattened.
William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield is the owner and captain of a paddle steamer that has seen better days. He eagerly awaits the arrival of his college student son, whom he has not seen since the lad was a baby. Expecting a big, husky man like himself to help him compete with businessman John James King and his brand new, luxurious riverboat, he is sorely disappointed with his slight, awkward offspring, who shows up with a pencil moustache, a ukulele and a beret. He becomes outraged when he discovers that his son and King’s daughter Kitty, also visiting her father, are in love. Both business rivals are determined to break up the relationship.
When Canfield’s ship is condemned as unsafe, he accuses King of orchestrating it. He assaults his enemy and is put in jail. His son tries to free him by bringing him a loaf of bread with tools hidden inside, but his scheme is detected. The sheriff hits Canfield Jr. on the head, sending him to the hospital.
Then a cyclone hits, tearing down buildings and endangering the ships. As Canfield Jr. makes his way through the town, a building front falls all around him. He reaches his father’s ship and rescues first Kitty (stranded on a floating house), then his father (by ramming the ship into the sinking jail, which has also been blown into the river), and finally Kitty’s father. When Kitty goes to her hero, she is puzzled when he jumps into the water. However, his purpose becomes clear when he returns, towing a minister in a lifebuoy.
Buster Keaton as William Canfield, Jr.
Ernest Torrence as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr.
Marion Byron as Kitty King
Tom McGuire as John James King
Tom Lewis as Tom Carter
The original idea for the film came from Charlie Chaplin collaborator, Charles Reisner, who was the director. Keaton, who had directed or co-directed many of his earlier films, was an uncredited co-director on this project. In June 1927, Keaton traveled to Sacramento, California, and spent over $100,000 building sets, including a pier. Original plans called for an ending with a flood sequence, but due to the devastating 1927 Mississippi River Flood, producer Joseph Schenck forced Keaton to cut the sequence. Keaton also spent an additional $25,000 for the cyclone scene, which included breakaway street sets and six powerful Liberty-motor wind machines. The cyclone scene cost one-third of the film’s entire budget, estimated at between $300,000 and $404,282. Keaton himself, who calculated and performed his own stunts, was suspended on a cable from the crane which hurled him from place to place as if airborne.
Shooting began on July 15, 1927, in Sacramento. Production was delayed when Keaton broke his nose in a baseball game. The film includes Keaton’s single most famous stunt: an entire building facade collapsing all around him. The open attic window fits neatly around Keaton’s body as it falls, coming within inches of flattening him. (Keaton had performed a similar, though less elaborate, stunt in his earlier short films One Week and Back Stage). Keaton did the stunt himself with a real, two-ton building facade and no trickery. It has been claimed that if he had stood just inches off the correct spot, Keaton would have been seriously injured or killed. His third wife Eleanor suggested that he took such risks due to despair over financial problems, his failing first marriage, the imminent loss of his filmmaking independence, and recklessness borne of his worsening alcohol abuse at the time. Evidence that Keaton was suicidal, however, is scant—he was known throughout his career for performing dangerous stunts independent of any difficulties in his personal life, including a fall from a railroad water tower tube in 1924’s Sherlock Jr. in which his neck was fractured.
At the end of shooting, Schenck announced the dissolution of Buster Keaton Productions. Keaton shot the risky stunt, not caring if he lived or died, later saying “I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing.” The mark on the ground telling Keaton exactly where to stand to avoid being crushed was a nail. Keaton later said that filming the shot was one of his greatest thrills.
It is one of the few Keaton films to reference his fame. At the time of filming, he had stopped wearing his trademark pork pie hat with a short flat crown. During an early scene in which his character tries on a series of hats (something that was copied several times in other films), a clothing salesman briefly puts the trademark cap on his head, but he quickly rejects it, tossing it away.
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Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a box office failure and received mixed reviews upon its release. Variety described the film as “a pip of a comedy” and “one of Keaton’s best.” The reviewer from The Film Spectator appointed it “as perhaps the best comedy of the year thus far” and advised “exhibitors should go after it.” A less enthusiastic review from Harrison’s Reports stated “there are many situations all the way through that cause laughs” while noting that “the plot is nonsensical.” Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called the film a “gloomy comedy” and a “sorry affair.”
Over the years, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has become regarded as a masterpiece of its era. Currently, review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes reports that 100% of critics have given the film a positive rating based on 26 reviews, with an average score of 9.17/10, with an audience rating of 92%. The film was included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
The film inspired the title of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928), which was released six months later and is considered the debut of Mickey Mouse.
The famous falling house stunt has been re-created several times on film and television (although with lighter materials and more contemporary safety measures in place) including the 1991 MacGyver episode “Deadly Silents”; the 2004 Arrested Development episode “The One Where They Build a House” (performed by the show’s character named Buster); Al Yankovic’s music video Amish Paradise (cross-referencing Peter Weir’s 1985 movie Witness); and episode 7 in the first season of Lucha Underground, with a ladder.
Deadpan, a 1997 work by English film artist and director Steve McQueen, was also inspired by Steamboat Bill, Jr. McQueen stands in Keaton’s place as a house facade falls over him. This film was shot from multiple angles, and the scene repeats over and over again while McQueen stands seemingly unaffected.