STEAMBOAT BILL JR., Buster Keaton's last independent production before he signed his fateful contract with MGM, is a very funny comedy about rival riverboat owners, highlighted by one of the most amazing sequences of all time--the cyclone climax.
In the town of River Junction, Mississippi, William Canfield Sr. (Ernest Torrence), otherwise known as Steamboat Bill, operates an old, rundown riverboat called "Stonewall Jackson," while his rival, the town banker J.J. King (Tom McGuire), operates a spanking new, luxurious steamer called "King,"
and wants to put Canfield out of business. Canfield gets a telegram stating that his son, William Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton), whom he hasn't seen since he was a little boy, is coming home from college in Boston. Canfield goes to the train station to meet his son expecting to find a big,
strapping lad, and is shocked to discover he's a wimp with a fancy mustache who wears a beret and a bow tie, and plays the ukelele. Canfield takes Jr. into town and has his mustache shaved off, then buys him a new hat and some work clothes, but Jr. prefers to wear an officer's uniform on the boat.
Jr. runs into Mary (Marion Byron), King's daughter, whom he's friendly with from school, and Canfield and King get into a fight when Jr. tries to board King's steamboat. Canfield and son take their steamer for a cruise, but Jr. sneaks off at night and swims to Mary's boat. Canfield is fed up, and
in the morning, buys Jr. a ticket to go back to Boston, but Jr. doesn't want to leave. "Stonewall Jackson" is condemned, and Canfield blames King and attacks him. Canfield is thrown into jail, and a heavy storm with torrential rains hits the town. Jr. visits his father in jail, armed with a large
loaf of bread filled with files, screwdrivers, and hammers, but they fall out and the sheriff sees them. He tries to throw Jr. into jail, but Jr. punches him and unlocks his father's cell. Canfield escapes, but Jr. gets his pants caught in the cell door, and the sheriff hits him over the head with
a gun and sends him to the hospital. Canfield comes back and knocks the sheriff out, then locks himself up again.
The storm has now turned into a cyclone, with strong winds blowing cars and people down the street. Buildings start to collapse, and the roof of the hospital blows off. Jr.'s hospital bed is whisked away and lands in a horse stable. He walks through a door as a house is blown apart and the entire
facade of a building falls on top of him, but an open window passes over his body and he emerges unscathed. He sees the river and tries to dive into the water, but it turns out to be a painted backdrop inside a theater. Then, he grabs onto a tree, but it's uprooted and flies through the air and
takes him to the jailhouse, which is sliding into the river. He saves Mary, who's about to drown, and drives the steamboat into the jailhouse, rescuing his father. He dives into the raging river to save Mary's father, then curiously dives back in again. A moment later, he emerges from the water,
bringing a priest up with him.
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. was originally going to be about a Mississippi River flood, but when a real flood hit the area in 1927, the disaster plot was changed to a cyclone. And it's a good thing, too, since this brilliant sequence ranks with the best of Keaton's two-reel shorts in terms of comic
ingenuity and sheer invention. One mind-boggling feat follows another, as Buster stoically fights his way through a whirlwind of flying cars and collapsing buildings, topped by perhaps the most incredible stunt in the history of the cinema, when the facade of the house falls directly on top of,
and passes safely over, him. Before shooting, Keaton took precise measurements which gave him about two-inches of space on either side of the open window frame that passes over him. He had to stand exactly on his spot and not move, and hope that the house didn't shift as it fell, or he would have
been crushed by the two-ton facade. One of the cameramen was so scared that he couldn't even look while the scene was shot, but the stunt went off without a hitch, and studying the film frame-by-frame reveals that Keaton doesn't even flinch during it. The entire cyclone scene is a mystical
adventure filled with surrealistic delights, such as the wondrous image of Buster flying through the air holding onto a tree, or when he gets trapped inside a theater and has to contend with a painted ocean and a ventriloquist's dummy, and then disappears inside a magician's curtain. The whole
sequence lasts almost 20 minutes and is a spectacular example of Keaton's genius, superbly blending special effects, astonishing stunts, and surreal sight gags. An earlier scene, where Canfield takes his son shopping for a new hat, demonstrates Keaton's ability to mine more subtle laughs. Keaton's
facial expressions are priceless as he tries on hat after hat, including an in-joke where he puts on his trademark pork-pie and quickly whips it off. But it is the cyclone climax that the film is justly famous for, and it contains one of the quintessential Keaton images: trapped in the mud, he
bends his body forward at a 90-degree angle, puts his head down, and imperturbably attempts to dive into the air against the powerful wind. Keaton was forever fighting against natural elements and the laws of gravity, sacrificing his body to transcend the physical limitations of human existence.
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