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.