It’s not the scene where he clings to a flying tree, or the scene where he piggybacks a girl while dangling from a rope over a ferocious river.
Nay, we feel the genius of Buster Keaton is the quiet scene where he goes to the jailhouse to visit his recently-imprisoned father. Keaton sits, politely, in a chair across from the sheriff’s desk and in view of his father’s cell. He has brought a ridiculously large loaf of bread with him.
Keaton begins to communicate with his father through hand gestures, even though his father is annoyed and uninterested. However, Keaton persists, aware that the preoccupied Sheriff may not be distracted for long.
First, Keaton signs to his father that there are tools hidden inside the loaf of bread. Then he demonstrates how the tools could be used to break out of jail. He also suggests how to stage a quick getaway.
Keaton outlines this aggressive plan using only his hands. No words, no dialogue, yet Keaton ensures we understand all of it.
That, dear Reader, is the stuff of legend.
Ultimately, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a film about love; specifically, the love of what’s important to us as humans.
There is the love we have for home, as evidenced by Keaton’s father (Ernest Torrence). Torrence plays a crusty riverboat captain, whose aging vessel is sorely outmatched by his rival’s sleek new paddleboat. But Torrence’s love for the river – and the river way of life – outstrips any desire for prestige or money.
Secondly, there is the love between two long-time friends, as portrayed by Torrence and his First Mate (Tom Lewis). Although the film doesn’t dwell on the history of their partnership, we can tell these two men have leaned on each other through the thickest of troubles.
Thirdly, we see the romantic love Keaton has for Marion Byron, a smart, high-spirited girl he wishes to marry. Keaton is utterly smitten with her and, in the end, proves he will do anything for her – and vice versa.
Most importantly, we feel, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is about the love between a father and his son.
At the start of the film, Keaton returns home from years away at school, and Torrence can hardly contain his excitement. The lumbering Torrence has not seen Keaton since he was a wee lad, and he hopes Keaton has grown to be tall and burly, like himself. Not only that, he anticipates Keaton taking over the family business.
But when Keaton appears, he is neither tall nor burly – nor particularly outdoorsy – and Torrence’s dismay is obvious. His disappointment is compounded when he realizes Keaton is rather prissy and not a little clumsy.
But as the story progresses, we see a grudging affection develop between Keaton and Torrence and, when Keaton discovers he must risk his life to save his father, he does not hesitate.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s last project as an independent filmmaker. (He wrote and co-directed this film sans screen credit.) Financial pressures would soon impel him to join MGM, where he would surrender creative control. This would prove to be a ruinous decision from which his career would not recover.
Even though Steamboat Bill, Jr. is now lauded for its visual daring (see above clip), it was not a box office smash when first released. According to Wikipedia, critics had mixed feelings about it; one critic labeled it “a sorry affair”.
Yet it remains a remarkable film, and in 2016 it was added to the U.S. National Film Registry for its cultural significance – and about time, too.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a funny and clever film that celebrates Buster Keaton’s genius, while reminding us of our love for the Important Things in life.
Steamboat Bill, Jr.: starring Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence. Directed by Charles Reisner (and an uncredited Buster Keaton). Story by Karl Harbaugh. United Artists, 1928, B&W, 71 mins.
This is part of The 3rd Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-ology.