In Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928) Buster Keaton, for his final independently produced feature, enjoyed a level of complete creative control (with no budgetary restrictions) afforded only a select few. This freedom had allowed Keaton such luxuries as filming a train crashing into a river from a burning bridge at the then astronomical sum of $42,000, causing his 1927 feature The General to run way over budget. Keaton was equally unconcerned about the budget for Steamboat Bill, Jr., which is most famous for the massive cyclone sequence that climaxes the film.
While mastering the technological aspects of cinema’s form and function, and helping to expand its language by discovering how editing and the camera could enhance visual gags, Keaton’s diminutive central figure was constantly attempting to master large and small objects. In his first solo release, the two-reel One Week (1920), Buster must build a house from scratch, following directions on numbered boxes. Everything from small tools to large slats of wood and furniture (from chairs to a piano) is subject to his control. When the house itself begins spinning violently in reaction to a heavy thunderstorm, Buster futilely attempts to stop it by hand, the building pushing against him, as the wind and rain pummel his desperate body. A year later, in his two-reeler The Boat, Buster attempts to control the self-built title craft against similar elements. Boats again figured prominently in the Keaton features Our Hospitality (Keaton and Jack Blystone, 1923) and The Navigator (Keaton and Donald Crisp, 1924).
The cyclone sequence in Steamboat Bill, Jr. not only culminates Keaton’s strongest creative period, but also his use of objects. The boats and houses Keaton used as imposing structures against his diminutive body must now join him as victims of the elements. Buster acts in much the same way as he had in One Week, trying to run against the wind, but remaining stationary until eventually being blown back by its force. As in the earlier film, the very atmosphere by which he is surrounded is now the object he must somehow survive and ultimately control.
Many of Keaton’s features are notable for the massive sequences at their climaxes, from the triumphant decathlon sequence that concludes College (James W. Horne, 1927), to the impressive finale of Seven Chances (Keaton, 1925), in which several potential brides pursue Buster after it is advertised that he must wed by a certain time in order to inherit a large sum. Buster evades his pursuers with a series of breathtaking stunts, including tumbling down a steep hill and dodging several large boulders that roll in his direction. With Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster’s triumph combines stunt work with cinema’s technology in a manner that sums up Keaton’s creative vision.
However, in our haste to discuss the enormous cinematic achievement of the cyclone, we should not overlook the many great scenes that lead up to it. Buster Keaton, for all his strength and athleticism, was also a master at playing a dainty milquetoast. In his previous film to this, College, he is a student who believes brain is better than brawn, and exhibits no athletic ability. By the end of the film, he is handily conquering a decathlon. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster is the same sort of privileged college boy, but this time the conflict is with a rugged father, whom he visits upon graduation, not having seen the man since infancy. Steamboat, Sr. wants to alter the college boy’s appearance, hoping the surface image will somehow convey the idea that his only son is not quite the milquetoast his appearance would otherwise suggest. They begin with a hat store. As various hats are tried on, Buster continues to reach for a cap he likes, only to be rebuffed by the father with increasing anger. Once a hat is finally chosen it immediately blows off as Buster leaves the store, Keaton again using objects, this time much smaller, as the centre of his comic expression. The imposing figure in the piece is Buster’s much taller father, who stands over him disapprovingly (the small framed Keaton would frequently cast larger supporting players to present this sort of visual contrast). The hat sequence is quite relaxed, and uses little movement in contrast to the film’s cyclone conclusion. (Interestingly enough, this hat sequence was re-used by The Three Stooges in their short comedy Three Dumb Clucks (Del Lord, 1937), with a much more boisterous presentation that was no less effective.)
The relationship between Steamboat Bill, Sr. and Jr. is central to the film’s narrative and is the reason for the cyclone climax. Buster must prove himself in order to gain his father’s respect but he appears to already have his acceptance, however begrudging. Steamboat, Sr. might be embarrassed by his son’s slighter, weaker and more sensitive nature, but he forces himself to accept it. He tries to toughen his image, teach him the basics of running the steamboat, and show him how to defend himself. Buster is eager to please, but completely incompetent. Even in brief transitional sequences where he is casually exploring the ship, Buster is so out of place that he is constantly bumping into cables, tripping over obstacles, and at one point he even knocks a life preserver into the water and watches it immediately sink (exhibiting how rickety and unsafe his father’s craft is).
The cyclone sequence builds slowly, from light rain to its eventual full effect. Buster’s quest is to free his wrongfully imprisoned father. While the technology of primitive special effects allowing for such realism is immediately impressive, we mustn’t overlook the narrative and character trajectory that lurks within these effects. Buster, in desperation, is able to draw deeply within himself and pull out areas of resourcefulness his character had heretofore not exhibited. At first, seemingly unable to comprehend his frustrated father’s careful instructions as to how to run the boat, Buster is now able to tie several ropes to various devices and single-handedly operate the craft, once again taking control of a large inanimate object in order to achieve his screen character’s necessary climactic triumph.
The cyclone is not only amazing for its technical achievement, it is impressive for Keaton’s choices in filming it. As the storm builds, the initial impact of its force is presented by a car suddenly being overtaken by the wind. The vehicle moves from foreground to background with various types of debris flying about in the negative space. Keaton continues to keep all of this activity within the frame of a medium shot, with buildings collapsing as people flee to safety. A hospital is lifted intact into the heavens by the wind’s force. A heavy structure falls on Buster, the open window landing exactly where he is standing (a particularly dangerous stunt that had been done on a smaller scale in One Week). The concentration on medium shots causes Buster to look especially small in comparison to the large structures that are collapsing from the strength of the winds. Keaton later switches to a long shot of Buster running alone in a barren field, trying to escape the force of the winds that surround him. Suddenly an intact structure lands on him. He walks out the door, and the building shatters behind him.
The masterful presentation of the sequence from all levels is a fitting climax to the series of brilliantly clever ideas that lead up to it. Sadly, Keaton’s comic artistry would never again reach these lofty heights. Upon completion of this project, Keaton made what he would later call the biggest mistake of his career by signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. At MGM he was expected to limit himself to acting in films in which he was cast, thwarting the creativity he’d been free to exhibit throughout his career up to this point. The fact that his artistically inferior MGM films made more money than his independent productions (chiefly due to the larger studio’s more expansive distribution and promotion) added the proverbial insult to injury. By 1933, alcoholism and his resulting unreliability rendered him unemployable by the major studios, and he finished out his career making low budget short comedies and supporting appearances. While this writer has written an entire book arguing that there is some real merit to many of the sound films Keaton did (he remained active right up until his death in February 1966), the fact remains that Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the last film in which he was able to supervise an entire production from conception to execution.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928 USA 70 mins)
Prod Co: Buster Keaton Productions/Joseph M. Schenck Productions Dir: Charles Reisner Scr: Carl Harbaugh Phot: Bert Haines/Dev Jennings Ed: J. S. Kell
Cast: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Tom McGuire, Marion Byron