Twitter Plot Summary: The son of a stereotypical riverboat captain returns home to join his father’s crew. And then a hurricane hits.
Five Point Summary:
1. Everybody’s wearing a white carnation! Guffaw!
2. A minor case of cat throwing.
3. That’s no place to stick a barber’s brush!
4. Singing in a silent film. But of course.
5. If he’d been stood in the wrong place…
With nothing but the sound of a piano as accompaniment, many silent films lived or died on the basis of the lead character’s performance. There aren’t a huge number of performers from this era that are instantly recognisable to many, but those who are on that short list are there because they are timeless entertainers. The likes of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo are known for exactly that reason, and on that list is the star of this film – Buster Keaton.
The story sees Keaton’s slightly effeminate son of a riverboat captain return to join his father’s crew. Naturally his effete nature is at odds with the rough and tumble of the sailor’s life, and he’s soon butting heads with his father. Soon, Keaton’s William Canfield Jr meets Kitty King, daughter of a powerful local banker, and they start dating, much to the chagrin of their respective fathers. Notice – no mother figures present. That could explain a lot… After William Jr’s father is imprisoned by King, he tries to orchestrate his father’s escape but instead ends up in hospital. Then, a hurricane hits the town and it’s up to William Jr to rescue Kitty, his father and his prospective father in law. There’s no attempt to explain William Jr’s past, nor is it necessary. His mere presence and relationship with his father is plain enough to see. From this starting point we’re treated to an extensive repertoire of jokes and sight gags.
Keaton is excellent as Bill Jr, demonstrating a hefty amount of physical comedy without overplaying it. No, the likes of Laurel and Hardy and later the Marx Brothers were on hand to provide that type of over the top humour, but whilst there is a certain element of slapstick to Keaton’s performance, it’s altogether more grounded than by some of the material of his peers.
It’s also astoundingly well directed given that it stems from the earliest Hollywood era, and Keaton was clearly a master of the art form even at such an early stage of its development. The stunts, performed live in camera, are an amazing technical achievement even by today’s standards. It’s even possible that today’s CGI-jaded audiences won’t recognise just how dangerous it was to drop the front of a building on top of Keaton – the stunt was performed for real and, had Keaton been stood in the wrong spot, he would have been crushed. That apparently wouldn’t have bothered him so much as he was going through a slightly depressed phase at the time of the film’s production, not that you can really tell from his performance.
Suffice to say I’m a big fan of this era of cinema, although as is often the case I haven’t seen nearly enough of it as I would like. It’s also evidence that it doesn’t matter what age the film or the subject matter – if it’s funny then you’ll laugh anyway. With Steamboat Bill Jr, you will laugh. A lot. High praise indeed.