Friday, August 29, 2008

Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner) ****

Director: Charles Reisner

Cast: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Tom McGuire, Marion Byron

Background: Buster Keaton was just coming off the debacle of The General, which was a critical and commercial failure for him, and would only be considered a classic much later.

Story: Gruff steamboat captain William Canfield (Ernest Torrence) is excited to meet his son for the first time in years, but is disappointed by the when he meets the skinny, silly young man that steps off the train. He tries to train his son on how to be a steamboat captain, but is frustrated at the many mistakes the kid makes. He's also not happy that his son is in love with the daughter (Byron) of one of his biggest rivals (McGuire).

Thoughts: This is definitely my favorite Buster Keaton film so far, mainly because it avoids many of the problems that have plagued some of his other films. One of my biggest complaints about Buster is his seeming need to show that he doesn't care about anything (with his trademark stone face expression), but then asking the audience to root for him to win in the end. That's tempered a bit here, because the story is actually told from the point of view of the steamboat captain, and Ernest Torrence delivers a beautiful performance as a solid hardworking man who just wants his son to follow in his footsteps. The underlying story is very sweet, and Buster is a little more empathetic here than usual. There's a funny early scene when he tries to cheer up a baby. Also, the film doesn't falter in the one area that Buster does usually get right; the big third act stunt sequence. This one features some of Buster's finest comic moments and for once it is in service of characters that are worth caring about.

Postscript: Steamboat Bill Jr. was another box office failure for Keaton. Back to back box office misfires, plus the inciming wave of sound meant the loss of Keaton's creative freedom. He would continue acting regularly for a long time, but he never returned to the stardom of the 20s. Ernest Torrence would continue as a notable supporting actor for a few years, but he passed away in 1933.

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