Two steamers, of unequal dignity,
In Muddy Waters where we lay our scene…
…is how Steamboat Bill Jr. might have begun, but despite its lifted plot it opts not to make any explicit Shakespearean connections. It isn’t much of a wordy picture anyway. Instead, with an economy of storytelling that leaves as much room as possible for the physical-comedy setpieces, it introduces us to Steamboat Bill (already-a-veteran Ernest Torrence) and John James King, owners of the two rival steamers that dominate their “two-boat town”. King’s ship, the King, is a handsome luxury ship, while Bill’s, the Stonewall Jackson, is a leaky embarrassment. King is established early on as a stock arrogant capitalist, boasting about how utterly he intends to destroy even the scant competition that Bill’s business presents. Bill himself takes longer to reveal himself as a similar-but-opposite working-class git, but he gets there once his son enters the picture, back from college. “Steamboat Bill Jr.” is, of course, Buster Keaton, effete, prissy, and a horrifying prospect to his Working Joe father, who promptly has his son’s moustache shaved, smashes his son’s ukulele, and does his damnedest to dispose for good of his son’s beret, too.
But Keaton is in love with King’s kind daughter, so of course the stage is set for a confrontation; not one of the old foes finally settling once and for all their differences, but one of both youths rebelling against the cruelty of the old. But the film isn’t that heavy, and the plot isn’t that important, because once it’s all set up and done with, the already pacy film moves up into a breathless barrage of strung-together “bits”. The most famous is the climactic cyclone scene, which you know even if you think you don’t: it’s the one where the house façade falls over, the tiny hole for the window passing harmlessly over a nonchalant Keaton. But the jailbreak sequence is even funnier, if less impressively madcap.
The beautiful thing about silent comedy, compared to silent drama, is that it’s basically timeless, which is presumably the motive behind this rerelease. But that’s not to call it spurious, because we are assured that Modern Videofilm’s 4K restoration work was painstaking, and the newly-recorded score by Carl Davis sounds clean and pleasing without being too modern – except for an anachronistic electric guitar used to represent strong winds.
Keaton scholars call this his second-best feature, and his last classic before a trip to MGM diluted his power. But I don’t think any film history is required to appreciate Keaton’s graceful clumsiness and absurd, solemn dignity – especially when so many of the gags originated here are now standards.
Steamboat Jr. is back in UK cinemas as of today! Are you going to be revisiting this classic film? Let us know in the comment box below!