Review: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

What’s that, a review that isn’t tied into a marathon, a bracket or some sort of project, how odd!

Story By: Carl Harbaugh
Directed By: Buster Keaton & Charles Reisner

Buster Keaton possesses a face of stone, a face that shows nary a fleck of emotion. Yet, his characters are funny, endearing, and likable protagonists. Keaton has the ability to make the audience laugh at what he is doing, care about what he is doing, and root for him in all of his antics. He does this with that same stoic and stone face, and that may be what makes him so memorable as a comedic actor. His emotion doesn’t come through on his face, it comes to the surface in the form of his physicality. Keaton is tactile, always touching or interacting with something. He’s always in trouble because he can’t just stand in a room, or a room can’t just stand still with him in it. Hope, desire, love, fear, sadness and anger are never seen on Keaton’s face. However, those emotions are found in spades in the way he contorts his body and avoids physical calamity. I always thought Charlie Chaplin was the king of physical comedy, but having seen a few Buster Keaton films he may have to relinquish his crown to the new king.

That last sentence is a bit of a misnomer and a dastardly play on expectations by moi. I’m not about to compare Chaplin to Keaton, I happen to love them both. They are similar yet completely different and both men make motion pictures that I cherish. I do find myself preferring Keaton a tad more these days, but that’s like me saying I prefer a bacon cheeseburger to a cheeseburger. Both are awesome and I’d gladly take either one into my belly. Okay, I wouldn’t take Chaplin or Keaton into my belly, that’s downright weird and awkward to think about. Hopefully you get my point, I’m not one to compare the two, so if you’re looking for that in this review then you need look elsewhere.

An apt comparison for Steamboat Bill, Jr. is hard to find, Keaton’s film were very much their own brand of comedy. They are funny, but Keaton, and in this entry Charles Reisner, creates a wonderful blend of sublime, screwball and obvious comedy. The last ten minutes of Steamboat Bill, Jr. aside, Keaton even eschews the over the top zany antics that can often be found in silent comedy for a much more realistic and natural approach. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the simple tale of a boy trying to please his father, a father trying to toughen up his son, a business rivalry and a bit of love tossed in for good measure. Until we reach the end I never found myself thinking that Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a far fetched tale. I found it to be a very realistic and easy flowing comedic work, much more low key than the other Keaton I have seen to this point.

The last ten minutes or so of Steamboat Bill, Jr. were a bit troubling. While it is funny to watch Keaton let loose with his physicality, it’s also doesn’t mesh with the natural tone of the rest of the picture. In a picture where five minutes is spent watching Keaton try on dopey hat after dopey hat, a jailhouse floating through the river seems out of sync. That’s not to say that the final ten minutes of Steamboat Bill, Jr. are bad, but they do feel like they are from a different movie and that caused some tonal issues for me. But, the film does end on Keaton’s magnificently stoic face, making it easy to forgive the minutes that precede that final shot.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. isn’t up there with The General, but very few movies are. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a nice addition to the Keaton films I have seen. I laughed a lot, I chuckled often, I really dug this picture. Watching a son try to please his father proved to be quite the adventure. But, watching Buster Keaton show off his physical style of humor was the real treasure on display here. His face may never move, but his emotions are on full display, just watch that lanky body be tossed to and fro and you should see all the emotions Mr. Keaton wants to convey in Steamboat Bill, Jr..

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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3 responses to “Review: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

  1. It’s a fun flick, but Keaton has made much better and, like you said, the last act seems a bit out of character from the rest of the film.

    And, that being said, I like Chaplin more. He’s my kind of melodramatic sap.

  2. I really love Chaplin, but the more I watch Keaton the more I think I slightly prefer his deadpan humor and slight dramatic touches to what Chaplin offers, which are, as I said, great.

  3. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Streaming Wasteland! | Bill's Movie Emporium

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