(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Steamboat Bill Jr. is a blessed relief after the relative debacle of College. There was much turmoil behind the camera, but none of it shows up in the movie. It’s well-constructed, thoughtful, and funny, a most worthy finale to Buster Keaton’s career as an independent filmmaker.
The movie’s story came from Charles Reisner, an assistant director on several of Charlie Chaplin’s movies (including his immortal The Gold Rush) who was named director here. The premise is that “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (memorably performed by Ernest Torrence), a crusty riverboat captain, is reunited with his collegiate-dandy son Willie (Keaton), whom he hasn’t seen since Willie was a baby. He is crushed to find that his son is the urban antithesis of a river-boatman, and he sets out to make Junior a man. Further complications ensue when Willie becomes romantically involved with Kitty, the daughter of Steamboat Bill’s business rival.
(As Kitty, Marion Byron does a fine job and holds her own with Keaton, no small feat since she was an unknown actress and only fifteen years old – less than half the age of her leading man.)
Keaton had planned an elaborate flood finale for the movie, but Harry Brand – the go-between man for Keaton and producer Joe Schenck – told Schenck that recent Southern floods would render the climax both expensive and in bad taste. Keaton acquiesced to Schenck’s request to change the movie’s natural disaster to a cyclone. But that made things even more expensive when sets had to be rebuilt and wind machines shipped to the location. Keaton was further nonplussed to later find out that in the previous year, more people had been killed by cyclones than by floods.
(Keaton wasn’t inclined to listen to Brand to start with. Brand was Schenck’s replacement for Lou Anger, an associate who had impressed Keaton. Furthermore, Anger had never asked for a screen credit, and Keaton was furious to find that, on this movie and College, Brand was credited as “supervisor” – which, to Keaton, made it look as though he, the star, was given co-credit with a paper-pusher.)
The most famous part of the almost dream-like cyclone finale comes when a two-ton wall falls directly onto Keaton, who is saved only by an open window that falls around Keaton. (The window gave Keaton two inches of clearance on both sides.) Keaton dined out on the story that when the scene was filmed, the cameramen looked the other way and Reisner was sequestered in a tent off the set, nobody wanting to witness the almost certain death of their star. Less often told is Keaton biographer Marion Meade’s account that, only two days before the filming, Schenck had told Keaton that he was closing Keaton’s independent studio, and that at that point, Keaton didn’t care if he lived or died. Whatever Keaton’s reason for subjecting himself to it, it remains one of the most astounding movie stunts of all time. (The Internet Movie Database reports that a cable pulling down the wall is clearly visible in the shot. Trust me, you either won’t see it or you won’t care.)
After Willie has rescued his father, his girlfriend, and her father, Willie inexplicably jumps back into the water, only to return with a life-preserver containing a parson who can wed Willie and Kitty. It’s a charming closing to the movie, and to the end of a groundbreaking era in silent films.