Buster Keaton in THE BOAT (1921) – Why is it so funny? Damfino!

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Buster builds and launches a boat. That might not sound like a rich premise for comedy, until it appears as though Buster got his boat-building kit from the same place that he got the house-building kit in One Week (1920).

Much has been made of Keaton’s stone-faced stoicism, and it fits him perfectly here. Indeed, he has so many problems with launching his boat and keeping it floating, Buster seems less interested in enjoying his sailing than he is in playing a captain continually resigned to going down with his ship.

The other characters are interesting, too. Other than a couple of shots of eye-rolling, Sybil Seely again plays a wife offering Buster much sympathy and support (extremely so, in light of the ever-worsening catastrophes at sea). And two uncredited boys play Buster’s sons as though they’re carbon copies of their father, right down to the porkpie hat and their grave acceptances of life’s tragedies. When the family is about to go down for good in a leaky lifeboat, they don’t even begin to cry – they sit there frozen in resignation, as though their old man told them long ago that there would be days like this.

Buster’s choice of moniker for his boat – the Damfino – also leads to some unique problems, as well as an almost surreal ending. (By the way, that’s co-director Eddie Cline playing the ship captain who receives Buster’s S.O.S.)

Lastly, a note about the movie’s film quality. Kino Video, which insures superlative restoration of the films they handle, nevertheless provides a print of The Boat that is full of filmic glitches. But rather than besmirch Kino, be grateful the film exists at all. When actor James Mason bought Keaton’s mansion in 1952, he discovered fragile nitrate prints of what turned out to be the only available copies of some of Keaton’s best work – The Boat included. Between that and his terrific narration of the Charlie Chaplin documentary Unknown Chaplin, one could hardly ask for better contributions to film history than Mason quietly provided.

The Boat – that is to say, the movie itself, and its titular subject – is a perfect symbol for Keaton’s persona: buffeted about by life’s winds, yet standing up and coming back for more.

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