In celebration of its 101st anniversary, Images Cinema dug deep into film history for a one-night screening of one of the most celebrated silent films of all time: Buster Keaton’s 1928 classic, Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Directed by Charles Reisner, produced by Joseph Schenck and originally distributed by United Artists, the film not only became one of Keaton’s last efforts independent from studio management, but also delivered one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history.
Images recreated the silent film experience as much as possible, with live music improvised by the keyboards of Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton (including sound effects courtesy of Seaton’s versatile noisemakers). Sosin and Seaton also provided a pre-show introduction that, in addition to contextualizing the film’s place in cinematic history, taught the audience two popular songs which the film referenced.
Once the film started, the premise was deftly set by the physicality of the actors, the lifelike sets and dialogue cards that appeared just often enough to enhance the storytelling and provide necessary information without interrupting the flow of the visual medium. In this case, said premise involves William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr. (Ernest Torrence), a hardscrabble veteran of his eponymous business who is competing with the new luxury boat of the aristocratic businessman John James King (Tom McGuire) and eagerly awaiting the return from Boston of a son he has never seen. Anticipating a “junior” just like him in demeanor and fitness who will eagerly and capably help him get ahead with his steamboat, he is unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of Keaton’s titular William Canfield, Jr., a ukulele-carrying, beret-wearing, dangerously clumsy young man with a very unconvincing moustache, whose attempt to navigate the boat goes as well as the audience would expect (not at all).
The exposition having built up Jr.’s arrival, Keaton’s first appearance on screen sets the payoff in motion instantly, as the actor’s iconic physical comedy is juxtaposed with his signature deadpan expression. The subsequent antics make excellent use of McGuire’s gruff exasperation with his son’s idiosyncrasies, with an extended comedy bit featuring a barber making quick work of the barely-there moustache and the father and son struggling to find the perfect hat – with Keaton’s iconic porkpie hat quickly discarded in a brilliant flash of meta-humor.
The hijinks really kick into high gear, though, when Bill Sr. discovers that his son and King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) are quite taken with each other, and both business rivals start doing everything they can to try to break up the relationship. Like all plot developments in the film, this primarily exists to serve up more elaborate stunts and sight gags, this time revolving around the younger Bill trying to sneak out of his cabin and onto the Kings’ boat while his father tries to keep him in bed (the sequence, naturally, involves multiple characters falling into the water), with the key element of deception being that Keaton is always wearing another outfit underneath his nightgown.
The synergy between story and medium continues into the final act, with the stakes of the plot escalating in tandem with the stakes of the stunts. After Bill Sr. attacks King in retaliation for his steamboat being condemned, his son attempts to break him out of jail by smuggling lock-picking tools inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread. The scheme is thwarted, but before the character confrontations can resolve themselves, the climax of the film is hijacked by a cyclone.
The ensuing scene is a stunning display of large-scale destruction that looks impressive even by the standards of today’s disaster-saturated movie culture, and is all the more so because the effects and stunts are completely real. As wind machines roar, tear-away sets really do come crashing down, leading to one of Keaton’s, and film history’s, most ambitious moments: an entire building facade collapses onto the unwitting Bill, with Keaton’s body fitting cleanly through an open window as debris crashes around him. While the character only realizes what has happened after the fact, the actor performs the stunt knowing that he risks serious injury if the mark is missed.
The remainder of the scene is equally delightful, especially when Keaton’s character suddenly embodies the actor’s athleticism and proves himself a veritable action hero in rescuing his father, Kitty and a minister in a life buoy. With that, the film ends; there is no denouement, because the spectacle has delivered all it has to offer and concluded on a deeply satisfying note.
It is this satisfaction, from both the film itself and the impressive and immersive musical accompaniment, that defines the experience of watching a Buster Keaton film in a local theater in 2017.
Images’ recreation of Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.,’ incorporated live improvisational accompaniment to the silent film. Photo courtesy of the Athena Cinema.