Sunday, November 07, 2004

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 November 2004 in Jay's Living Room (WGBH)

It's possible to not love Buster Keaton, I suppose. Maybe it's even easy; all you have to do is have a limited, modern conception of what movies should be - driven by dialog, plot, and characterization, with visual effects used only to forward those things. I feel sorry for those people, because they can't understand the sheer delight of a movie like Steamboat Bill, Jr.

If they do, of course, they'll say, well, it's a silent. Silent movies are practically a different medium. That's true, to an extent, although if that were really the case silents probably would have survived the invention of sound as a separate if less-popular art form - instead, they were basically replaced by the talkies, only occasionally being revived by folks like Jacques Tati, Guy Maddin, and Rowan Atikinson (in his Mr. Bean series). So I think you have to judge a silent film on its merits as a film, not as a silent.

This still makes Steamboat Bill, Jr. a pretty great movie. Its seventy-two minute running time demands a fairly compressed story, but it's still there, along with some clever character work. As William Canfield Sr (Ernest Torrence) awaits his son's arrival from college (he hasn't seen his son since he was a toddler), he also has to deal with local mogul J.J. King attempting to squeeze Canfield's independently-owned ferry out of business. Imagine burly Bill's disappointment when his son turns out to be scrawny, effete Buster Keaton - then compound it when he finds out that Junior and King's daughter (Marion Byron) were friendly back in Boston, and quite happy to meet again back home.

Credited director Charles Reisner is good at building character and setting with an economy of shots - he establishes King's dominance over the town with a series of quick-cut images of businesses bearing the King name, and a caption along the lines of "practical work clothes (with her help)" between two scenes is a fine transition that also underscores just how citified Bill Jr. and Marion King are (Marion is the name given the character on the IMDB, though I think she's referred to as Kitty within the movie). The themes of writer Carl Harbaugh's story, big business against the little guy and romance outside one's station, are not nearly as important as Keaton's slapstick, but do give the movie some anchoring; the situations of the characters in this movie are something one can relate to seventy-five years later.

But, let's be honest, this movie is a Buster Keaton showcase, and a good one. Though his brand of athletic slapstick doesn't get much play until the end (and he doesn't appear until ten minutes in), he does show off a great range of comic ability - deadpan reaction shots, selling ridiculous situations without many words, precise little bits of physical comedy. The man was a master, and he's ably supported. Ms. Byron's Marion/Kitty is a pretty flapper (though if she looked a bit skinny to me in 2004, I wonder what 1928's audiences thought), though she's not as strong a screen personality as Keaton. Torrence make "Steamboat Bill" a likable enough lug, disappointed in and not quite able to understand his colege-educated son, but also protective enough not to tolerate anyone else treating Jr. with disdain.

The big deal, of course, is the set piece that occupies the last third or so of the movie, as a gigantic tornado strikes (and basically destroys) River Junction, requiring Junior to make his way across town to reach his father's boat, collect his girl, and then rescue his father from the city jail, which is basically floating downriver. That the storm is realized with full-scale practical effects doesn't change the basic truth that this is, basically, a gigantic special-effects set piece, with rivers flooding, Buster leaping from one part of his boat to another, and buildings flying through the air. This is the source of that familiar shot of the front wall of a building falling down on Keaton, but him escaping unharmed because he was precisely aligned with where a second-story window would land. There's a great deal of physical comedy, but also a great deal of stuntwork and raw spectacle. It winds up being just a notch or two below what Keaton achieved with the third act of The General.

Of course, being a couple notches below perfection is no bad thing. Just don't pretend that because Steamboat Bill Jr. is silent, the rules for what makes a good movie are different; they aren't. The movie sacrifices a certain amount of plot for comedy and spectacle, but demonstrates that it can be a more than acceptable trade-off.

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