If The General is Buster Keaton’s all-around best film, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton’s last independent feature comedy, boasts the most astonishing and indelible images in Keaton’s body of work and some of the best moments in movie history.
The film’s great claim to fame lies entirely in its wholly unexpected third act, which essentially jettisons the amiable comic plot driving the first two-thirds of the film in favor of a wildly inventive and increasingly audacious series of stunts and set pieces as Keaton battles a raging tornado.
Until the arrival of the tornado, Steamboat Bill, Jr. paddles along agreeably with a familiar comic setup, involving a dandyish young man (Keaton) whose softness and meekness are an embarrassment to his burly old man (Ernest Torrence), a grizzled old river rat who hasn’t seen Bill Jr. since he was a baby. There’s also the father’s pompous, well-to-do rival, J. J. King (Tom McGuire), the owner of a brand-new steamboat that threatens to put Bill Sr.’s paddlewheeler out of business, and a girl (Marion Byron) with whom Bill Jr. seems to have a bit of history, who just happens to be the daughter of Bill Sr.’s sneering archnemesis.
These story elements play out about as expected, heightened as always by Keaton’s exceptional athleticism and comedic physicality (no one else ever disembarked or boarded a ship quite like Keaton, especially one night sneaking out to try to see his girl).
The story starts to run out of steam about the time that Bill Sr. has a brush with the law that lands him in jail… just about the time a sudden cyclone blows into town and begins chewing up the scenery. Buildings collapse, furniture flies about, and trees are uprooted, providing some of Keaton’s most famous stunts — most unforgettably the immortal shot in which a house façade collapses right on top of him, and he survives thanks solely to a perfectly placed window.
Plot? Who needs plot? A must-see.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.