Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stubs – Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) Starring: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Tom McGuire, Marion Bryon. Directed by Charles F. Reisner. Story and Screenplay by Carl Harbaugh. Produced by Joseph M. Schenck. Run Time: 70 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Silent, Comedy

Sometimes it takes age for a film to get the credit it deserves. Steamboat Bill, Jr., the last film from the independent Buster Keaton Studios, considered today to be a classic of the silent slapstick comedy, was not a financial success when first released.

The film was a culmination of a creative partnership between comedian Keaton and his brother-in-law and producer Joseph M. Schenck, which included such features as Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1927) and College (1927), not to mention nineteen shorts including One Week (1920), The High Sign (1921), The Boat (1921) and The Balloonatic (1923). While ultimately Schenck would shut down the Buster Keaton Studio and convince the star to sign with his brother Nicholas Schenck’s MGM studios, the work they did together has stood the test of time. (Keaton had previously worked with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on a series of shorts from 1917 to 1920 that were also produced by Joseph Schenck, but these are really Arbuckle starring vehicles in which Keaton is a featured player.)

Joseph M. Schenck. Buster's brother-in-law (they both married Talmadge girls) and producer.

The relationship with Schenck allowed Keaton to make movies on his own schedule with his own group of writers/gagmen. If a scene wasn’t working out the way he wanted, the crew would play baseball until a better idea gelled. In this artist-friendly environment, Keaton flourished, producing some of the funniest movies ever made, as well as classics like The General, Sherlock, Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. When Schenck became more involved with United Artists, he removed his support and Keaton went to work for MGM, where his career would tailspin downward after one more classic, The Cameraman (1928).

The idea of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was brought to Keaton by director Charles F. Reisner, based on a popular song made famous by singer Arthur Collins from 1911, Steamboat Bill. The song would also appear in another 1928 film of note, the Disney short “Steamboat Willie”, which was a parody of Steamboat Bill, Jr. and helped to launch the career of animated character Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse making his debut in Steamboat Willie (1928), a parody of Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Despite the writing credit of story and screenplay by Carl Harbaugh, Keaton and his gagmen did the bulk of the "writing" that made it on screen. Keaton would say that Harbaugh was useless. And while Reisner is credited as director, Keaton also had a hand in that as well.

The film opens with the text, Muddy Waters, which is not a reference to the legendary blues singer, but to the Mississippi River. Up to the pier in the small town of River Junction steams a new paddle-wheel, the King, named after John James “J.J.” King (Tom McGuire), who also owns the River Junction Bank and the Hotel King.

The newest steamboat in River Junction is King, the namesake of J.J. King.

King’s plan is to run William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) and his ship, steamboat Stonewall Jackson, out of business. Even Bill’s first (and last) mate, Tom Carter (Tom Lewis) practically concedes defeat. But Bill is not going to give up without a fight.

Returning to port, Bill is handed a vaguely worded telegram from his son in Boston, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby. Bill, Jr. has recently graduated from college and has been sent by his mother to visit his father. Bill and Tom imagine that Bill, Jr. must be like Bill, a strapping, muscular sort, perhaps, as Bill imagines, even bigger’n than he is.

 Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton) is not all what his father Bill, Sr.(Ernest Torrence)
was expecting. First mate Tom Carter (Tom Lewis) looks on from the left.

He is no doubt disappointed when he realizes that the meek-looking, fancy-dressed. beret-wearing man carrying a ukulele under his arm is his son, Bill, Jr. (Buster Keaton). Bill tries to remake his son in his own image, first taking him to the Hotel King barber to get his pencil-thin moustache cut off. There Bill, Jr. is reunited with alumni, Kitty King (Marion Bryon), who has also just returned home. She can’t wait to introduce Bill, Jr. to her “loveable” father, unaware of the feud between their fathers (think Romeo and Juliet).

Kitty King (Marion Byron) Bill Jr.'s alumni also home from college. This was Marion's first film.

While she runs off looking for her dad, Bill, Jr.’s drags him to the hat shop to find a suitable replacement for the beret. In a bit of slapstick, we see the father and milliner try on a succession of hats, including, though only Bill, Jr. seems to notice, Buster Keaton’s iconic porkpie hat. After finally agreeing on a hit brimmed white hat, no sooner do they step outside than a gust of wind blows it off of Bill, Jr.’s head and back comes on the beret.

While trying on hats, Bill, Jr. is fitted with a porkpie hat synonymous with Keaton.

This time, Bill takes his son to get new clothes, more suitable replacements for the striped blazer, wide-legged pants and checkered bow tie he’s wearing. Bill leaves his son alone and Kitty runs to help. With her help, as the movie attests, Bill, Jr. reunites with his father dressed more like a yachtsman than a crew member aboard a steamboat. When he sees him swagger onto the docks, Tom hands Bill, Sr. a wrench saying “No jury would convict you.”

Bill, Jr. is nothing but clumsy. He knocks into a deckhand and sends a life preserver into the water (where it sinks). On board the ship, he hits his head as he ascends the stairs, runs into wires and nearly falls off the deck of the Stonewall Jackson. When he sees Kitty on the deck of the King, he poses for her benefit and even when he is upended when a deckhand pulls the rope out from under his feet, Bill, Jr. tries his best to impress her.

Bill, Jr. is not at ease on board his father's boat the Stonewall Jackson.

With the two boats docked so close together, Kitty jumps on board the Stonewall Jackson to be near Bill, Jr. When King tries to drag his daughter back to his boat, Bill, Jr. follows. Then Bill demands his son return to his boat. King ups the ante by having one of his uniformed officers throw Bill, Jr. off the King, but Kitty follows her man back to the Stonewall Jackson. Bill, Jr. talks her into returning to her father's boat. But that’s not good enough for King, who warns Bill that if his son returns to the King, he will personally wring his neck.

Bill prods his son to step back on board the King and Bill, Jr. is thrown back and forth between the two boats. Finally thrown back on the deck of the Stonewall Jackson, Bill, Jr. brings the King’s officer with him. The officer gets up and tries to fight Bill, Jr., who declines. But Bill doesn’t quit; he takes his son’s hand, balls it into a fist and knocks the officer back into the water.

Buster becomes a pawn between his father and his rival J.J. King (Tom McGuire).

Bill threatens King, by saying if any of his men board his ship, Bill, Jr. will take care of them. But before Bill, Jr. can feel too smug, his dad pulls him away and over another of the ship’s cables. King likewise pulls Kitty off in the opposite direction.

Bill tries to get a crewman to show Bill, Jr. how to run a steamship, but the curious boy pulls a chain which sends the boat forward, ramming the King repeatedly, eventually sending its namesake into the water. Bill is mad at his son until he sees his rival in the water. Trying to celebrate, he gives his son a plug of chewing tobacco. When he slaps his son on the back, Bill, Jr. swallows and faints to the floor.

That night, Bill, Jr. sneaks off the Stonewall Jackson to rendezvous with Kitty, who has left him a note saying that she’ll wait for him at the salon. But his father catches him and makes Bill, Jr. give up the uniform. Meanwhile, King admonishes his daughter for her interest in the Canfield boy. He tells her that he will pick the right man for her, while at the same time Bill tells his son that he’ll pick the right girl for him.

But undeterred, Bill, Jr. sneaks out. His clumsiness gets the best of him when his attempt to bridge the gap between the two decks with a plank fails and he ends up in the water. Bill watches as his drenched son climbs on board the King in defiance. Eventually, King, an officer and Bill, Jr. all end up back in the water again.

The next morning, Bill wakes his son with cold water and presents him with cash and a train ticket back to Boston.

Bill gives his son a ticket back to Boston.

Meanwhile, the Stonewall Jackson is condemned. Thinking King is behind the notice, Bill confronts him in public. Their confrontation escalates into a brawl and Bill is arrested for assaulting King.

Bill, Jr. has by now started for the train station. He pauses when he sees Kitty walking towards him, but she continues past him into a building. Not sure if he just imagined her or not, he continues towards the station. But Kitty has a change of heart and follows after him.

Kitty is only a few feet behind him when Bill, Jr. sees his father being taken to jail. Determined to get his father out of prison, he tears up his ticket and turns to return to the ship. Kitty turns at the same time and appears to be walking away from him, which gives him pause.

A box on the front page of the local paper declares that the weather will be wet and cloudy on the day Bill, Jr. goes to visit his father in jail. After sinking waist deep into a puddle, Bill, Jr.’s over-sized umbrella gets turned inside out. Once in the jail, Bill, Jr. unwraps the white bundle he’s been carrying to reveal a loaf of bread he’s brought for his father, who turns it down. Bill tells the jailer to throw him out, but Bill, Jr. decides to wait it out until his father gets hungry enough for the bread.

Bill shows the Sheriff the loaf of bread he's brought his father in jail.

While he waits for his father to come around, Bill, Jr. comes across the posted lyrics to ‘The Prisoner Song’, which he sings. Then he tries to pantomime to his father how a prisoner could escape, by sawing through the bars and knocking out the guards, but Bill does not understand the message.

Bill, Jr. tries a second strategy. He stages a rock being thrown through the glass of the jail and while a dim-witted sheriff sorts it out, Bill, Jr. opens the loaf of bread to show his father that it is filled with escape tools. But when he is escorted to his father’s cell, all the tools fall out on to the floor. He is also taken into custody, but manages to escape, setting off a chase which ends when the sheriff drops his keys, which Bill, Jr. hands back to him.

Unappreciative the sheriff throws him up against the bars. But Bill encourages his son to fight back and Bill, Jr. knocks out the sheriff with a blow to his stomach. Bill escapes outside to the bushes, but his son’s long coat gets caught in the jail door, but the keys, where his father dropped them, are a little out of reach. By the time he finally frees himself, deputies arrive and hold him. The revived sheriff whacks Bill, Jr. over the head with his gun.

Then Bill, upon seeing the blow and his son being taken to the “receiving” hospital, punches the sheriff and then walks back into his cell.

While Bill, Jr. is at the hospital, hurricane force winds start to destroy the town, ripping the sides off buildings if not completely off their foundations. There is chaos in the streets as men and women seek shelter from the destructive winds.

And it is at this time that the daredevil athleticism of Buster Keaton really takes over. It would be near impossible to describe all of his antics as he moves from one near fatal stunt to another. But it is in this sequence that we do get perhaps the best known bit from Buster Keaton’s film, when the three-story front of a house falls and the great stone face escapes by standing precisely where a window is. There’s been a lot written about Keaton’s frame of mind at the time the film was made. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge was falling apart and knew his days as an independent filmmaker were coming to an end. Some say he was suicidal when he took such risks, but these were well calculated stunts, if not grander versions of ones he’d already performed. (The house façade narrowly missing him was also done on a smaller scale in the short, One Week.)

Keaton couldn't move, literally. His shoes were nailed down.

The stunts, all done by Keaton, have to be seen to be believed and fully appreciated. This sequence truly rivals anything from a Harold Lloyd film, another silent comedian known for his dangerous comedy bits (see Safety Last (1923)). In addition to the falling house, Keaton is blown around by the high winds, electrocuted by downed power lines and even rides an uprooted tree. Towards the end of the sequence, Bill, Jr. climbs onto the paddle wheel of the Stonewall Jackson, which has broken free of its mooring and is floating down river. (You can see a portion of the sequence without fear of commercials here:

Bill, Jr. quickly becomes a hero. When the house Kitty is trapped in floats by, he uses the ship’s anchor as a grappling hook to stabilize the house. He attempts to use a rope to save Kitty, but on returning to the ship the weight is too much and the rope breaks. Thrown into the water, Bill, Jr. swims Kitty back to the ship and gets her up on deck.

Next, he rescues his father from the jailhouse, which is now also floating by in the river, with Bill waist deep in water. Using an elaborate web of ropes and levers, Bill, Jr. crashes the Stonewall Jackson into the jailhouse and frees his father, pulling him from the river.

After that, Bill, Jr. steers the ship to rescue J.J. King from his floundering namesake. Diving nearly two stories into the river, Bill, Jr. rescues Kitty’s father and swims him back to safety. Kitty and Bill pull her father up onto the deck and the two fathers seem to reconcile during the tragedy.

And just when it seems everyone is safe, Bill, Jr. grabs a life preserver and jumps back into the river. Kitty is dismayed until she sees him swimming back with a minister (James T. Mack) in tow.

Bill rescues a minister (James T. Mack) so he can marry Kitty.

The cyclone/hurricane ending was not the original one they had in mind, but a devastating flood on the Mississippi River in 1927 caused a rewrite. The Mississippi flood, the worst in U.S. history, impacted 14 states, caused over $400 million in damages and killed 246 people in seven states. Feeling the events were too recent, the flood was changed to winds. The change also drove up the $200,000 budget, as on short notice $135,000 worth of breakaway sets were constructed and six powerful wind machines were deployed to knock them down.

Shot in Sacramento with a budget of over $400,000, the film, which opened to mixed reviews, actually lost money in its initial release. Despite its less than grand debut, the movie is now considered a classic and an essential Keaton film. The film combines the best elements of Keaton’s work, from the humor of human interaction to his death-defying slapstick stunts.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was the first film for Marion Byron, who played Kitty King. She would appear in 44 films, but none would be as memorable as this one. After this movie, she would sign with Hal Roach and appear in several comedy shorts with the likes of Charley Chase and Edgar Kennedy. After the talkies became all the rage, she moved into musicals, now mostly forgotten. Her last film was Five of a Kind (1938).

Ernest Torrence was a Scottish born actor who came to America in 1911 and found work on the Broadway stage. His role in the musical The Night Boat (1920) got the attention of Hollywood. His first film role was Luke Hatburn in the enormously popular Tol'able David (1921), which was voted a Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honor, a big pre-Academy honor. He would also appear in the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Like Byron, Torrence moved into talkies, making his last film I Cover the Waterfront (1933). Soon after that film was completed, he died suddenly from an acute attack of gail stones.

Buster Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, is considered one of the great silent film comedians. Up until the time Keaton joined MGM, all three had retained a certain independence from the major studios. Keaton’s films, like Chaplin’s, were made when inspiration struck. If one gag didn’t work, then re-do it until the desired effect was obtained. (The Unknown Chaplin TV series, from 1983, details Chaplin’s reworking of bits and shelving ideas that he couldn't get to work on film.) None of them could have been as creative in a studio environment which at the time prized speed over quality.

It is sad that for Keaton, Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a last hurrah of sorts. His career and life would never be the same after this. But the film stands as a testament to his talent and must be/should be seen to be appreciated.

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