Steamboat Bill Jr. is probably the first Buster Keaton film I’ve seen and I regret to say I saw it for the first time just a few days ago on TCM. I wish I’d been able to appreciate silent films more as a teenager when my Dad tried fruitlessly to share these classics with me. Some awful combination of teenage pigheadedness and ADHD put up a wall between me and enjoying the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. I can’t go back in time and make myself appreciate those films sooner but nothing’s stopping me from enjoying them now.
Here’s the gist. A new state of the art river boat is relegating an older more established riverboat to obsolescence. The defiant captain of the older boat, Steamboat Bill, has no plans to desert his beloved river and beams with excitement after reading a telegram announcing his son is arriving from Boston to help run the boat. A comedy of errors ensues as the father and son personalities clash over nearly everything. In the meantime, Bill Jr. becomes enamored with the newer riverboat Captain’s daughter and a forbidden love affair begins.
That’s all well and good, but the reason to watch Steamboat Bill Jr. is to stargaze upon the comedic genius of Buster Keaton. This movie is bursting with brilliantly executed slapstick comedy at its finest. There’s a whole scene dedicated to Bill and Bill Jr. shopping for a new hat for the younger Bill. A man’s hat, not like the fancy beret he arrived wearing. They spend 5 minutes or so of film with silly bits of Bill Jr. trying on hats and Bill Sr. angrily throwing all the hats Jr. likes on the floor in disgust. It’s brilliant, you just need to watch it, they set up these shots with the store clerk handing Bill Jr. hat after hat from out of frame as if he might just have an endless supply of hats just off screen and Bill Sr. hates every one of them. Finally they agree on a hat, then pay for it and leave only for a mighty gust of wind to blow the hat off Jr.’s head and into the river. All of that aggravation and humiliation and Jr. still walks away wearing his beret. It’s sublime.
I think what surprised me the most is how epic it becomes. Epic is not a word I ever expected to use to describe a silent era comedy but that’s just what it is. Sure it starts with low stakes and simple vaudeville bits but then there’s a prison break, a break in of sorts and a cyclone that rips through town literally tearing off the sides of real life sized buildings. It’s insane! This is the film with the famous open window stunt! While that might’ve been one of the most historic and dangerous shots it’s not the most visually epic.
At 92 years old Steamboat Bill Jr. is still incredibly entertaining, exciting and most of all funny. It’s no wonder Mickey Mouse sprung to fame as a Steamboat Bill cosplayer.