Steamboat Bill, Jr: The End of a Glorious Era

Steamboat Bill, Jr was released through United Artists in 1928 and was the last picture by Buster Keaton for the studio before moving to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Keaton had a very productive decade, creating some of the finest pictures of the silent era and the funniest of any era, including inventive two-reel shorts such as One Week (1920), The Boat (1921), Cops (1922), and acclaimed motion pictures such as Our Hospitality (1923), The Navigator (1924) and The General (1926).

However, Keaton was nearing the end of his fine run of form and his move to Metro Goldwyn Mayer soon proved to be a huge mistake.

Steamboat Bill, Jr begins with the captain of the paddle steamer captain William Canfield, better known as “Steamboat Bill” (Ernest Torrence) whose old paddle steamer “The Stonewall Jackson” is no comparison to the new steamer owned by his wealthy rival JJ King (Tom McGuire) who is stealing all his customers.

Bill receives a telegram that his son (Keaton), whom he has not seen since infancy, is coming to stay with him. When waiting for his son at the train station, Bill looks out for a big man wearing a carnation but is dismayed when he discovers that William Jr. is a timid dandy with a pencil moustache, a foppish beret, and a ukulele. This is going to be a challenge for the rough and tough Bill Sr. who tries to change his son’s appearance by sending him to the barber and the hat stop.

In the meantime, Bill Jr. reacquaints with Kitty, the daughter of rival James King and they try to ignite a romantic relationship in front of their feuding parents.

Meanwhile, the weather is changing, and a hurricane is coming.

Named after a 1911 Arthur Collins recording, Steamboat Bill, Jr is a splendid comedy that contains some of Buster Keaton’s most outrageous physical stunts, especially during the tornado sequence. The famous stunt when an entire front of a house falls on Keaton as he stands completely still did not impress half the crew members who had walked off set rather than taking part in such a dangerous act. Keaton said that he was so devastated to learn about his studio being shut down, that he didn’t care if the wall had crushed him or not.

Filmed on the Sacramento River in California, Buster Keaton is in brilliant comic form and is supported by a strong cast including Scottish character actor Ernest Torrence as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield Sr. and English actor Tom McGuire is as King. American movie comedian Marion Byron, who was only 16 years old at the time of filming, sparkles as Kitty in her film debut.

Despite the poor box office returns and negative critical response to his previous epic The General, Keaton still held on to some artistic control of his work on Steamboat Bill, Jr. He co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed the picture (although Chas. F. Reisner strangely receives sole directing credit) Although the story was credited to Carl Harbaugh, both Keaton and Harbaugh did not receive any writing credits.

Steamboat Bill, Jr suffered the same fate as The General, being a critical and box office disappointment at the time but soon ranking as one of the finest films of the era. The General would soon rank highly in many Greatest Films of All Time lists.

After moving to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, a move that Keaton would call “the worst mistake of my life”, he lost much of his artistic independence to the demands of his new studio, even though he still was able to make the critically acclaimed The Cameraman. Nevertheless, Keaton’s creative independence had already been compromised and his great comic run of the twenties would soon be over.

Steamboat Bill, Jr stands up well today after many viewings. The definite version of the picture is the 4K remastered version that was released theatrically in 2015 for Cohen Media Group with an original score by celebrated composer Carl Davis. This is the perfect restoration of Steamboat Bill, Jr, which is an impressive comedy from the end of a glorious era for this incredible screen talent.  

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