Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr came towards the end of an incredible run of films for Buster Keaton, a run that helped shape many aspects of cinema, and whose influence is still felt today. Like all the best Keaton films, it is equal parts thrilling, spectacular, hilarious, and poignant without being sentimental.

"Steamboat” Bill Canfield has two prized possessions – a dilapidated paddle steamer, of which he is the owner and captain, and his student son, William Jr (Keaton), whom he has not seen since the lad was a baby. When Bill Jr comes to stay, fresh out of college, dad is disappointed to find his offspring is not the hulking macho man he was expecting. Instead, he sees a small, slight awkward fellow, with a ukulele, a pencil moustache, and a beret, not the sort who can help him compete with rival businessman John James King and his shiny new, luxury riverboat.

To make things worse for Canfield, Junior is in love with King's daughter Kitty, his ship is condemned as unsafe, and he ends up in jail for assaulting King - just as a cyclone hits town. Can Junior step up, prove himself a man, and save his love, his father - and his father's boat?

Even if you do not know the film you may well know the most famous scene, arguably Keaton's most famous scene of all, where, after stopping to catch his breath in the middle of the cyclone, the front wall of a two-story house crashes down over him. Keaton emerges unscathed his body perfectly framed by an open window. It still looks as impossible, and unthinkably dangerous today as it ever has. Goodness knows what was going through his mind at the time, but at least it was not two tons of house.

However, Steamboat Bill Jr is more than just one scene, and Keaton (Carl Harbaugh is listed as writer, even though Keaton claimed it his really his work. Whatever the truth behind that, it is difficult to picture Keaton not having a major say in the finished product) showed that he was prepared to spend time crafting the film. While it may not have the rigid, symmetrical story structure of The General, the film Keaton made directly before, this is by no means a slapdash screenplay.

The jokes are the usual mix of hair-raising spectacle with the more outrageous aspects all underpinned by Keaton’s deadpan demeanour, and more small scale, knockabout humour, such as the routine with Bill Sr trying to buy a new hat for Bill Jr. However, by now Keaton is adept and confident at telling a story, and building characterisation, and the routines also serve those purposes. For example, the business with the hats is a great way of showing Dad's increasing frustration with his son, and the massive difference between the two, both in appearance and personality, something which makes the scene somewhat poignant.

Father figures are a regular feature in Keaton films, second only to lady love interests. Plot wise, Steamboat Bill Jr makes a good companion piece to The General, as both feature a lead character who has to perform seemingly impossible (for him at least) tasks to impress his dad (and to impress a lady as well, of course).

The spectacle comes in the form of the extended cyclone sequence, clearly shot on location, not on a sound stage, and using life size street sets, designed to be torn to pieces by gigantic wind machines with Keaton, when not battling the breeze, being swung around on a giant (out of shot) crane. Throughout it all he maintains his trademark calm in the eye of the storm

Keaton would only approach these creative heights one more time with The Cameraman, a film which marked his move from independent film maker to MGM employee. Eventually, the studio interfered more, Keaton cared less, and the films became pale shadows of what had come before. Still, aspects of his work remain influential in various ways. Jackie Chan sites him as a major influence, something easy to see in Chan's fluid acrobatics and life threatening set pieces, while Johnny Depp's stonefaced performance in Edward Scissorhands is clearly a loving tribute. Cinema owes him a huge debt, for showing that you could make a film longer than 2 reels, with a story, a character arc, and visual spectacle, all of which can only be done within that medium.