Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #58: "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928)

Buster Keaton is a dandy who tries to impress his father in the surprisingly emotional Steamboat Bill, Jr.

The flick: Steamboat Bill,  Jr. (United Artists release of a Joseph M. Schenk production, 1928) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 7.9

Director*: Charles Reisner (The Hollywood Revue of 1929; The Marx Brothers' The Big Store)

*Buster Keaton was an uncredited co-director.

Actors of note:
  • Tom McGuire (The Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, Meet John Doe, Little Caesar, etc.)
  • Ernest Torrence (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tol'able David)
  • Tom Lewis (a handful of obscure 1920s films; died before this one was released)
  • Marion Byron (Trouble in Paradise, They Call It Sin)
  • James T. Mack (busy 1930s character actor; appeared in Buster Keaton's College; made an uncredited cameo as a prompter in Citizen Kane)

The film's climactic storm.
The gist of it: Rough-mannered sea captain "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Torrence) receives a telegram informing him that his son, whom he has not seen in many years and who has been away at school in Boston, is coming to visit him in the seaside community of River Junction, as per his mother's wishes. There, Bill and his loyal "last and first mate" Tom Carter (Lewis) operate a battered but durable old steamboat called the Stonewall Jackson, but they are in danger of being run out of business by pompous tycoon J.J. King (McGuire), who owns many local businesses and has just launched his own, super-deluxe steamboat, the King. Undaunted, Bill and Tom go to the depot to meet Bill's long-lost son, but they have a tough time picking him out of the crowd.

Eventually, they meet up, and Bill is utterly horrified to learn that his offspring, William Canfield, Jr. (Buster Keaton) is a foppish, dandified wimp. Worse yet, William almost immediately strikes up a Romeo-and-Juliet-type romance with J.J. King's pretty daughter, Kitty (Byron). Both fathers disapprove of the union and do everything to keep the young lovers apart. Meanwhile, Bill keeps trying to make a man out of William but has little success. When William won't stop seeing Kitty, Bill buys him a ticket back to Boston and tells him to get out of River Junction. But things take a turn for the unexpected when King has the Stonewall Jackson condemned by the safety commission. Infuriated, Bill physically assaults King and is tossed into jail. William throws away his train ticket and attempts to break his father out of jail, but he succeeds only in getting himself taken to the hospital with a closed head injury. But just then, a tremendous storm comes through River Junction, destroying nearly everything but the Stonewall Jackson, and William gets a chance to prove himself a hero to his girlfriend, her father, and his own father all at once.

Hank and Bobby Hill struggle to find common ground.
My take: I never went into Buster Keaton's films with the intent of psychoanalyzing the man, but Steamboat Bill, Jr. makes it tough to avoid the issue. Quite simply, this whole movie is about Buster trying to win the approval of his gruff, imposing father. There are obvious parallels here to Buster's own life, in which he fled from his violent, alcoholic father, Joe, in terror in the 1910s, leaving the Keaton family's vaudeville act for a solo career. After becoming successful, the comedian did not sever all ties with Joe but instead hired him repeatedly to act in his short films. And here is Buster Keaton's most elaborate meditation yet on father-son tension.

I think Steamboat Bill, Jr. will strongly resonate with any weird, nerdy kid who ever felt like he was disappointing his father by never learning to properly throw a football or change a tire. Certainly, there are echoes of this relationship in Mike Judge's animated series, King of the Hill (1997-2010), which was mainly about a proud, traditionally "manly" father, Hank Hill (voiced by Judge), and his goofy, misfit son, Bobby (voiced by Pamela Adlon), as they struggled to understand each other and build a workable relationship. Hank's main interests in life were beer, propane, BBQ, football, and mowing his lawn. Bobby was more drawn to stand-up comedy, puppeteering, music, and other creative pursuits. But to their credit, these two very different people worked to find common ground on a week-by-week basis.

Being only about 70 minutes long, rather than 13 years long like Judge's show, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has to condense this father-son saga into one bite-sized story with little vignettes that speak volumes about the relationship between the two men before wrapping everything up in a way that will satisfy the audience. The incredibly elaborate storm sequence -- which I did not know in advance was coming -- is an admittedly extreme yet effective solution to that narrative challenge. It's also an incredible feat of movie-making, especially considering when it was made, and a sublime showcase for Keaton's fearless, athletic physical comedy. Incidentally, it is here that Buster performs his absolute most famous stunt. During the storm, the wall of a house falls down on top of Buster, but the young man is not harmed because he was standing right where the window landed. It's a joke countless comedians have imitated, including "Weird Al" Yankovic in the "Amish Paradise" video.

Sadly, although the film is generally lauded by reviewers today, Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s critical reputation is not quite so sterling as it ought to be. Movie historians rather grudgingly declare it one of the last "classics" of Buster's golden age of the 1920s before he signed on with MGM and lost creative control over his films. However, to a man, they point out that Steamboat cannot be considered on the same "level" as Keaton's The General (1926). But why does there need to be a caste system among films anyway? Why do critics feel the need to turn everything into a horse race or a pissing contest? What good -- what single, tangible benefit -- has ever come from that? Name me one, and I'll bow at your feet.

I'd advise these critics and other viewers to concentrate on the movie they're actually watching and not worry so much about how it stacks up against other, "superior" films. It's all subjective and impossible to "measure" or "prove," so there's little point in worrying about it. I'd give the same recommendation to those folks who fiercely debate such topics as who was the greatest rock drummer of all time or which one novel they'd want on a desert island. Fellas, relax! You're wasting precious brain cells!

Upon its release in 1928, Steamboat Bill, Jr. received a rather vicious panning in the New York Times from short-sighted critic Mordaunt Hall, who in the same column raved about a now almost totally forgotten Dolores Del Rio melodrama called Ramona. While the sole remaining copy of Ramona today collects dust in the Czech Film Archive, Steamboat is available as a special edition Blu-ray from Kino Video, so perhaps history has rendered a different verdict than Mr. Hall did. (This same critic also gave Fritz Lang's Metropolis a rather sniffy appraisal. Could he pick 'em or what?) Despite Mordaunt Hall's objections, Steamboat Bill, Jr. received a high-profile and durable tribute the very same year it was released when Walt Disney's first cartoon with synchronized sound was titled Steamboat Willie. That particular 'toon launched the career of Mickey Mouse and has eclipsed even Keaton's film in fame and popularity. For the record, Mordaunt Hall liked the cartoon, proving that even a stopped watch is right twice a day.

Buster and his umbrella.
Is it funny: Yes. That's what really matters in a comedy, isn't it? Take away the flashy effects and the psychological underpinnings, and Steamboat Bill, Jr. is still a well-functioning and productive joke machine. A lot of the humor comes from the contrast between crude, no-nonsense "man's man" Ernest Torrence and fussy, effete "college boy" Buster Keaton. One review claims that Buster was "too old" for the part, but he looks young enough to me. The thick, almost kabuki-like makeup he wears renders his age difficult to discern.

Buster's very appearance at the beginning, complete with a beret and a ukulele, is funny because it's so out of place and inappropriate for River Junction. At one point, Buster prepares to board the Stonewall Jackson dressed in the fancy uniform of a Titanic crew member, and Tom tells his boss that "no jury would convict" him for shooting his son at this moment. There's a great extended sequence in which Buster tries on a great number of hats (including his signature porkpie, which he quickly discards) while his increasingly impatient father looks on. After all that fuss, Buster's new hat blows away the second he leaves the store, and the young man winds up wearing the same beret that had upset his father in the first place.

There are a few other nice extended comic sequences, like Buster's futile attempts to break his father out of jail with tools hidden inside a suspiciously large loaf of bread. Some of my favorite moments in the film, though, are the little ones -- like the running joke in which Steamboat Bill repeatedly injures his feet by stepping barefoot on the nutshells his son has carelessly left on the floor. Buster also gets some nice comedic mileage out of an umbrella that gets turned inside out and ends up collecting rather than deflecting water.

My grade: A

P.S. - Viewers should know that there is a bit of racial humor in the film, though not much. At one point, Bill is searching for his son and makes several wrong guesses -- including one man who turns out to be black, a situation that provokes gales of laughter from Tom Carter. In another scene, Buster falls into the ocean while attempting to see his beloved Kitty King. Soaked to the bone, Buster climbs back aboard the Stonewall Jackson, which for some reason terrifies a Negro guitar player who runs away in utter horror. Actually, in retrospect, maybe it wasn't so cool to name the heroes' steamboat after a Confederate general.

Ravi Shankar and George Harrison: Their obscure, late-career masterpiece

Two friends, captured decades apart: Ravi Shankar and George Harrison

That's the "om" symbol.
I have written of my atheism on this blog several times in the past, but I wouldn't want people to get the impression that I think I have the universe figured out or that I'm immune to the charms of nature. On the contrary, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty and complexity of this world and of what lies beyond it. Some of my favorite art has been created in service of religions to which I do not subscribe, and sometimes this very art -- particularly music -- makes me wish that I were a believer, too. That's the experience I had when listening to the little-known album Chants of India (1997). I didn't go out looking for the album. I'd never heard of it until I (more or less) accidentally found it through a YouTube search, and even then I didn't know exactly what it was. I just wanted some relaxing music to listen to while I worked, and I prefer longer videos because they're more practical for such purposes. (I didn't want to go looking for new clips every four or five minutes.) I saw a YouTube video of something called Chants of India that ran for 1 hour and 3 minutes, so I clicked on it and went to work. Soon, however, I began to notice how truly beautiful this music was and stopped what I was doing to investigate this album.

As it happens, Chants of India was recorded by world-renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), the most famous Indian musician of the last century. A great deal of his popularity outside India was due to the fact that his music was strongly advocated by the Beatles, particularly George Harrison. Shankar and Harrison formed a long-time friendship, and the two organized the famed Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Over a quarter-century later, George produced and sang on Shankar's Chants of India LP. Despite the participation of a Beatle, the album is not currently in print as far as I can tell. At the time of this album's appearance, George had not put out a studio album under his own name in ten years; he died only four years after Chants of India's under-the-radar release. Shankar would live another 15 years, but Chants was his last major professional collaboration with the ex-Beatle. Why it's not instantly available on iTunes in 2013 is beyond me. Still in all, one track in particular stands out: "Prabhujee," a devotional hymn whose lyrics translate as:

     Oh Master, show some compassion to me.
     Please come and dwell in my heart.
     Because without you, it is painfully lonely.
     Fill this empty pot with the nectar of love.
     I do not know any Tantra, Mantra or ritualistic worship.
     I know and believe only in you.
     I have been searching for you all over all the world.
     Please come and hold my hand now.

Of course, when I first heard the song, I didn't know any of that because the lyrics are all in Hindi. I didn't even know who had recorded it. My thoughts during that first listen were of a traveler who had spanned a great distance, crossing a vast ocean, and had arrived safely at the shore. I felt that this journey was a metaphor for life itself and that the shore was the afterlife or one's ultimate destiny. Knowing that George's own life was nearly over when this was recorded gives the song a special significance, as does the line about hand-holding, since it beautifully (if unintentionally) echoes the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and gives that uptempo Lennon-McCartney rock number an unexpected religious significance. I was also struck by the fact that "Prabhujee," while not tied to any particular era in music, was so similar to the music being made by contemporary bands. Specifically, the song combines the slow, sweeping grandeur of Sigur Ros with the keen melodicism of Arcade Fire. In fact, if I were describing this song to someone who'd never heard it (as I am doing now), I would say, "Imagine Sigur Ros covering an Arcade Fire ballad and stretching it waaaaaaaay out."

Here is the song which so impressed me. I hope it impresses you as well.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Ed Wood Wednesdays: Your Complete Guide to the Series

Why not be like Shirley and catch up on your reading this weekend?

Since July 2013, I have been devoting as many Humpdays as possible to the career of writer-director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in a series I've dubbed "Ed Wood Wednesdays." Originally planning only to watch his movies in roughly chronological order, I have since greatly expanded the range and scope of the project and have commented on many facets of Ed's life and work. The project's been running for a while now, so it's possible you may have missed an article along the way. Well, here they all are in a convenient list form. Read them at your leisure... and don't necessarily shy away from the unfamiliar titles. Those are sometimes the most fascinating of all.

In 2014, I wrote a series of articles reviewing each individual story in Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

And in 2019, I covered all the stories in Angora Fever: The Collected Stories of Edward D. Wood, Jr. as well.

Ad here are a few supplementary articles I call Ed Wood Extras:

Greg Dziawer has been contributing articles to this series on a regular basis since October 2015. He originally focused on Ed Wood's prolific writing career in the 1960s and 1970s, often debunking books and articles commonly attributed to Eddie. In the years since then, however, Greg has branched out, covering Eddie's work in pornographic loops in great detail and filling in biographical details about Ed's early years in Poughkeepsie, New York. But I never know what Greg is going to write about next. It could be any aspect of Ed's life or career. These articles, subdivided into various "orbits" and "odysseys," are ideal for all serious students of Edward D. Wood, Jr.

The Wood Magazine Odyssey
Titles marked with an asterisk (*) consist of indexed magazine titles from Calga, Pendulum, Gallery, SECS, and Edusex.
The Wood Paperback Odyssey

The Wood Collaborator Odyssey
The Ed-Tribution Odyssey

The Wood Erotica Odyssey

The Wood/Dziawer Odyssey

The Wood Musical Odyssey

The Wood Loop Odyssey

The Wood Sailboat Odyssey
The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey

The Wood Magazine Orbit

The Wood Loop Orbit

The Wood Set Decoration Odyssey

The Glen or Glenda Odyssey

The Plan 9 Odyssey

The Young Marrieds Odyssey

The Wood Nudie Odyssey

The Orgy of the Dead Odyssey

The Wood Ancestry Odyssey

The Wood Apprenticeship Odyssey

The Wood Yorty Odyssey

The Wood Photo Odyssey

The Woodologist Odyssey

Greg's Miscellaneous Articles

Thanks for keeping the series alive, Greg.

Media sightings of the Ed Wood Wednesdays project:

Happy reading, my dear friends.