Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

1928: Buster Keaton in "Steamboat Bill, Jr."

Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a 1928 silent film starring Buster Keaton. Released by United Artists, this film is the last piece of Keaton’s independent production team and set of gag writers. This film was not a box-office success and it became the last picture Keaton made with United Artists.

This film was directed by Charles Reisner and the story was written by Carl Harbaugh, although Keaton wrote the script. This film was named after a popular Arthur Collins 1911 song, “Steamboat Bill,” and it also featured Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron, and Tom Lewis. In 2016, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield is the owner and captain of a peddle steamer that is in rough shape. He impatiently awaits the arrival of his college student son, whom he has not seen since the fellow was a baby. Expecting to see a big, grown up man like himself to help him compete with businessman John James King and his brand new riverboat, he becomes disappointed with his gawky son, who arrives with a pencil mustache, a ukulele and a beret. He becomes infuriated when he finds out that his son and King’s daughter Kitty, also visiting her father, are in love. Both fathers are adamant about breaking up their relationship.

When Canfield’s ship is declared unsafe, he accuses King of conducting it. He attacks King and is put in jail. His son tries to free him by bringing him a loaf of bread with tools hidden inside, but his tactic is discovered.

A cyclone hits tearing down buildings and jeopardizing the ships. As Canfield Jr. walks through town, a building falls around him. He rescues Kitty who is stranded on a floating house, then his father by crashing the ship into the sinking jail.

Keaton is one of the greatest comedy actors of all time, but as for silent film wise, he is a tie with Charlie Chaplin. Where Buster makes people laugh without ever actually smiling (hints his nickname “The Great Stone Face”),  Charlie makes people laugh and he moves them also with a famous face and his stories.

This film is not only clever story-wise, but also humor- wise. It is truly a masterpiece, not only of its era or comedy, but as a film altogether. It is filled with smart plots, lively music, humor and has no dialogue and doesn’t need it either to understand what is going on. It is truly Keaton’s best in my opinion, The General being a close second. I don’t understand how this wonderful film could have ever been a box-office bomb, but those were different times and cinema was still a baby.

This movie will make you laugh, gasp, applaud. If you’ve never seen a silent film before, start with this one, or Chaplin’s City Lights, you won’t be disappointed. This movie is a great family film for ages 6+. 5/5


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