Steaming Along

When first introduced in Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton is dressed in kooky clothes, sports an odd mustache, and carries a small guitar. An eccentric by late 1920s standards, and not a fit for his father who runs a steam ship. The two step on each others comfort zones throughout Steamboat Bill, Jr., a classic conflict of father and son that makes this story universal.

Keaton’s genuine comedy depicts a fear of progress. Consider that time period with phones and cars and planes and industrialization, all new – it’s terrifying. Keaton steps in to meet his blue collar father, William Canfield (Ernest Torrence) fresh from one of those coastal, liberal colleges; dad goes to work showing his son how to punch, launch a boat, dress right, and toughen up. Manly stuff. No college course taught that.

Like in The General, Keaton portrays an absent-minded and agile hero setting out to get the girl, inviting two additional themes – forbidden love and rich versus poor. Canfield’s nemesis is a rival boat captain with a new ship, bigger and pricier than Canfield’s. The two duel like spoiled kids. Keaton just stares at their idiocy. That’s comedy gold.

The cyclone remains a lasting testament to Keaton and some of the finest 10 minutes ever committed to film

Progress matters; that’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.’s final message, with everyone aboard, accepting one another and their circumstances. Keaton gets the girl of course, but also his father’s acknowledgment after using wits (and luck) to save everyone during a freak cyclone. In terms of stuntwork, the final action of Steamboat Bill, Jr. is an outlaying of everything Keaton could do in his prime.

He falls, he flips, he splashes, he nearly kills himself (really). As a bonus, it’s spectacular visually. Entire buildings lift from their foundations and other crumble on top of theirs. That scene remains a lasting testament to Keaton and some of the finest 10 minutes ever committed to film, no hyperbole intended.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. chugs a little in getting there, biding time with a prison routine lacking in the frantic pace found elsewhere. Still fine for a number of gags, if overextended. And yet, it’s key to the story, with Canfield coming to admire his son’s ingenuity (if not his inexplicable lack of logic) and Keaton grasping dad’s fiery penchant for violence. There’s genuine heart to the comedy routines. Steamboat Bill, Jr. plays them for laughs first. Then, turns that into a parable for how people from different places at different times need to share their disparate qualities. With that, comes progress.

Video

A new master for this 1928 silent comes from Cohen films, paired on the same disc with The General. Given the combined length (under three hours), that’s not a compression problem. Grain structure holds up against Steamboat, Bill, Jr.’s challenging pieces, including kicked up dust and dirt. Not an artifact is noted.

The real splendor in this master comes from sharpness. A 4K source brings delicate detail and meticulous, film-like, transparent perfection. No sign of this being a digital scan appears; it looks like projected film, aside from the total lack of damage. All specks of dirt and signs of scratches were removed. Steamboat Bill, Jr. looks new.

If there’s a fault, that’s contrast. Kino’s previous Blu-ray release suffered a similar issue with clipping whites. Cohen’s work fares better. For instance, the signs posted in the jail hold legible text (Kino’s washed that away), if barely so. Some of that likely falls on the Sacramento sun beaming on this production, yet even at night the transfer carries the look of being overexposed. That saps some depth and dimension from an otherwise brilliant HD presentation.

Audio

A chipper score fills the 5.1 soundstage, nicely falling into the rears with punch from the fronts. Subwoofer pop adds support to the various drums, weighted and meaty to match the intensity of a live performance.

Extras

As Steamboat Bill, Jr. is paired with The General, the extras count towards both films. Since one of the two focuses entirely on The General, then the five minute Buster Keaton: The Luminary is credited here. Clips come from Cohen’s The Great Buster documentary, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, and others speaking to the legacy.

A trailer for this restoration is offered too.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Movie

One of Buster Keaton’s finest moments, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a universal story of romance, brawling, and progress with a perfect finale.

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