Buster Keaton and the Important Things in Life

Buster Keaton loves Marion Byron, despite her father. Image: Music at the Red Door
Buster Keaton (L) woos Marion Byron, despite her father (R). Image: Music at the Red Door

There is a scene in the 1928 comedy, Steamboat Bill, Jr., that beautifully showcases the genius of its star, Buster Keaton.

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.

Buster Keaton has baked some bread. Image: Doctor Macro
Keaton has been baking. Image: Doctor Macro

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.

No stunt doubles were used in this scene. Source: cromulantman via YouTube

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.




  1. What a spiffy writeup, Ruth — many thanks for it.

    How strange that I’ve never seen this movie and yet I must have watched the equally historic Disney animated . . . er . . . “homage” from the same year a score of times, and for obvious reasons written about it more than once. I really feel quite guilty now that I’ve skimped my background research so culpably. I must try to fit in a watching of Steamboat Bill Jr real soon now.

    Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you get the chance to see Steamboat Bill Jr. He may not be as all-out musical as Steamboat Willie, but he’s every bit as charming and resourceful. I’m curious to know what you think if you do get a chance to see it.


    • The scene with the hand signals really is pure genius, like you said. To outline a whole escape plan using only your hands is brilliant. The first time I saw it, I kept hitting the “reverse” button on my remote!


    • I think this is going to become one of my all-time Buster faves. Impressive stunts & cinematography, and a timeless story.

      I like your idea of using this as a “gateway” Buster K film! I think I’ll do that, too. 🙂


  2. Obviously I need to see this again. I honestly didn’t think it was that funny. I tend to prefer Keaton when he’s doing his outrageous stunts. I appreciate him as a filmmaker who arranged remarkable action sequences and visual techniques, but as a comedian, he tends to be hit or miss for me. I realize that puts me in a very small minority. Oh well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Keaton is The Best at those wild stunts. Sometimes I can hardly bear to watch!

      As for being in a minority when it comes to celebs everyone raves about, I can identify. There are a couple of classic film movie stars that everyone raves about…and I just don’t see it.


  3. Love Buster Keaton!! ‘The General’ (1926) is my favourite movie of his.
    I haven’t yet seen ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.’ (1928).
    Thoroughly enjoyed your description of the sequence where Keaton tries to help his father in jail. I can imagine a very Chaplinesque style of emoting a lot through body language.
    Like the clip you’ve posted (a famous scene, I’ve seen before).
    Pity, Keaton wasn’t credited for his co-direction. But unlike today’s stars, doubt Keaton would have minded, or even have expected to share the credit.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a lovely tribute, my friend! There is indeed a lot of love in this film. Buster’s work is sometimes called “cynical” (too often I feel) but I sometimes think we focus too much on some of his dark humor and don’t fully celebrate the many brighter aspects of his work. Thank you for joining the blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like your emphasis on love in this film! Usually, we remember Keaton’s gags, but not the heart of his films, which seems a shame! I tend to tell people about his stunts, but you show me I need to talk about the heart of his films, too.

    This was actually the first Buster Keaton film I ever saw – made me an instant fan. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A beautiful review of this film Ruth! I love what you said about the scene between Keaton and his fictionnal father. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this film, so I don’t remember much of it, but your great article certainly makes me want to revisit it.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is one of my favorite Keaton films. I love co-star Marion Byron—her nickname was “Peanuts”—how cute is that?! This movie is chock-full of stunts, and really clever humor. I, too, love the scene with the loaf of bread. As I have learned more about music from the early 20th century because of my love for old films, I enjoy that soundtracks on prints of Steamboat Bill, jr., (or live orchestras/pianos if you’re lucky enough to see this with an orchestra) usually play a snippet of “Thre Prisoner’s Song” (1924) when you see the jail scene. I see the sheet music for the song at a lot of flea markets, and read that it was very popular in the 1920s. Trivia: Ernest Torrance’s star on the walk of fame is right at the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave. in the heart of Hollywood,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Another amazing review and another TBW film. (I adore your writing. This line: “He has brought a ridiculously large loaf of bread with him.” Just that, set off from the rest of the paragraph, had me laughing.)

    This post turned into something unexpected and quite beautiful. Anyway, as I said, great review. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Buster’s the best! Haven’t seen this film, but pvr’d it a couple of years ago.
    Unfortunately, that pvr was silenced when we changed cable providers :-/
    We still have the old pvr packed with silenced silent films, though, and I’m
    hoping it’ll be possible to watch, someday … sigh, LoL … 😉 💜 Jackie@KWH

    Liked by 1 person

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