Sunday, March 11, 2012
This imaginative comedy lacks the prestige of Buster Keaton's classic American Civil War comedy "The General." Nevertheless,"Steamboat Bill, Jr." (***1/2 out of ****)surpasses "College." Clocking in at a concise 69 minutes, this amusing father and son reconciliation drama includes a romance along the lines of William Shakespeare's "Romeo & Juliet." Furthermore, the narrative chronicles the emergence of our diminutive protagonist as a man who can master his fate after he appeared destined for disaster. In other words, Buster casts himself as an underdog again as he did in "College." The problem with this existential comedy is our hero's transition from a clumsy nincompoop to an expert acrobat who can perform high dives off the top of a steamboat and rig it up in such a way so he can operate it single-handedly lacks credibility. The only shred of evidence that our eponymous hero has what it takes occurs when he surprises the sheriff, slugs him in the stomach, and watches as the fellow falls like an avalanche. More amazing than any of Buster's clever sight gags as he learns his way around the paddle wheeler is the spectacular special effects. Remember, the special effects personnel pulled off these stunts long before computer-generated special effects were available.
The Carl Harbaugh story concerns a pugnacious Mississippi River paddle wheeler captain who meets his son, Willie (Buster Keaton of "The Three Ages"), for the first time since he last saw him as an infant in the crib. Essentially, Bill does not know what Willie looks like. Meantime, Willie arrives at River Junction from Boston dressed like a fashionable college graduate, wearing a beret, sporting a pencil thin mustache, a spotted bow-tie, and carrying a ukulele under his arm. He has sent his father a telegram informing him that he will be able to recognize him by the white carnation that he will be wearing in his coat lapel. Unfortunately, Willie seems to have forgotten that it is Mother's Day and everybody is wearing a white carnation. Bill (Ernest Torrence of "Captain Salvation") and his First Mate, Tom Carter (Tom Lewis of "Adam and Eva"), head off to the railway station fully expecting to greet a big strapping lad twice the size of William Canfield, Sr. Nobody at the train station fits the description of the elder Canfield's son. As the Southern Railway locomotive with the number 45 on it pulls out, it turns out that Willie Canfield has been out of sight on the other side of the tracks. He makes an idiot out of himself as he approaches all the men in the station and flashes his carnation at them. Eventually, Willie loses the carnation, but he does not realize it and keeps poking his empty lapel into the faces of strangers. Finally, Bill recognizes Willie by the tag on his luggage while Willie is dancing and playing his ukulele for a baby in a stroller. Clearly, the 1920s were a different age altogether when babies could be left unattended in carriages at a public place without fear of being abducted.
Once he has picked his son up at the depot, Bill ushers Willie into a barber chair and orders the barber to shave off the "barnacle" of a mustache on his lip. Later, Bill drags Willie to a haberdashery to replace the beret with a hat that a man would wear. No sooner have they left the store than a gust of wind whips the white hat off his head and blows it into the river. Willie pulls the beret out of his back pocket and slips it back onto his head. Predictably, Bill is surprised to see the beret reappear, but he does nothing. Earlier, while Willie enconsed in the barber chair, Willie noticed that a cute little thing sitting opposite him is none other than Kitty King (Marion Byron of "Song of the West"), who attended the same college in Boston. These two try to get together, but their fathers refuse to countenance their relationship. John James King (Tom McGuire of "The Reckless Age") tells Kitty that he will pick the right man for her and the candidate will not be "the son of a river tramp." Similarly, Bill tells Willie that he will choose an appropriate mate for him and will not have a King for a daughter-in-law. Basically, Steamboat Bill and King are competitors in the paddle wheeler business on the Missisippi River. Recently, King brought in his brand new paddle wheeler and convinces the Public Safety Commissioner condemn the paddle wheeler--the Stonewall Jackson--that Bill owns. Bill goes after King, and King has him thrown in jail. The same day that the sheriff puts Bill in jail is the very day that Bill had arranged transport for Willie back to Boston. Willie sees the authorities take his father to calaboose and contrives a scheme to break him out. He conceals several tools inside a giant loaf of bread and convinces the sheriff to let him give it to his father. Initially, Bill wants nothing to do with Willie until his son shows him what the loaf contains. Bill breaks out, but Willie is caught. The sheriff cracks an unsuspecting Willie over the head with his six-gun and sends Canfield Junior off to the receiving hospital.
The major set-piece of "Steamboat Bill, Jr." is a high wind storm that tears up all the buildings in River Junction, blows the top off the hospital, and sends the jail into the river. The physical sight gags that Keaton performs are some of his best and most imitated. In one scene, the entire facade of a building falls on Willie, but he is standing where the window is so he is not hurt! Each gag is beautifully orchestrated by director Chas. F. Reisner who specialized in comedies, including the lesser Marx Brothers picture "The Big Store" and the Abbott & Costello comedy "Lost in a Harem." Even the smallest of gags, such as peanut hulls--which Bill refers to as "cocoanut shells"--that cut their bare feet up when they cross a floor are hilarious. The spectacle of Keaton clutching an uprooted tree that is hurled into the river is incredible as are the flying buildings that Buster runs into and out of. Of course, Willie and Kitty hook up in the end. Keaton performs all of his stunts and they are pretty amazing. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." ranks as a memorable Buster Keaton epic with several well-staged sight gags.
Don't miss this one.