If you claim to love screen comedy and haven't seen the films of Buster Keaton, something is very wrong. One of American cinema's great geniuses, Keaton was a world-class clown whose performances continue to inform the work of gifted physical comedians and whose daring stunts inspired the likes of Jackie Chan. During the silent-film era, Keaton also had an ambition for epic filmmaking, as seen in his magnum opus The General and the later Steamboat Bill, Jr., something close to a last hurrah for Keaton as a self-determining auteur.
Instead of the full-scale working locomotives of The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. puts into service two Mississippi paddlewheel steamboats: the aging "Stonewall Jackson" and the "floating palace" called "the King." With his fancy new boat, John James King (Tom McGuire) aims to put William Canfield (Ernest Torrance) and his "Stonewall Jackson" out of business. At this stressful juncture, college grad William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) returns home to River Junction, Mississippi to reunite with his father, who hasn't seen his son since he was a baby. Confusion ensues, but when the two stand face to face, it's unmistakeable that the two are comically mismatched: the short, compact Keaton is dwarfed by the broad and tall Canfield, and the father's old-fashioned sense of manhood doesn't jibe with the son's artsy college-dandy sensibility (he arrives sporting a beret, pencil-thin moustache and ukelele tucked under his arm).
Thus, "Willie" Canfield is an archetypal Keaton hero, with something to prove. The early scenes make the most of the son's difficult assimilation, as his father brusquely leads him around town by the hand and attempts to give him a make-over (in his high-strung expressiveness, Torrance made one of the finest foils for the deceptively minimalist Keaton). The situation takes a turn for the worse when Willie and King's daughter Mary (Marion Byron) fall hard for each other, embarking on a forbidden romance both fathers attempt to squelch. Willie's problems compound when his father winds up in jail and a hurricane suddenly sweeps into town. The natural disaster ironically affords Willie the opportunity to solve all of his problems—as long as he can save his father, his young love and himself.
As always, Keaton's physicality is so deft that he often makes his stunts seem much easier than they are. Consider, for instance, the sequence when he's being shoved from one steamboat to the other and back again (in a single, increasingly funny take). On the other hand, the film's escalation of stunts is designed to make one's jaw drop ever lower. The amazing head-over-heels pratfalls of the first act are but prelude to a scene of a disoriented Willie stepping out of a moving car, walking against the wind (no mime here: Keaton struggles against massive wind machines), and surviving one of the most famous and audacious stunts in film history: Keaton's Willie standing nonchalantly unaware as a two-ton wall drops over him, a small attic window narrowly affording his body safe passage. The house gag is the most indelible image of Keaton's fearlessness as a performer (it's been suggested that the stunt was evidence of a half-hearted death wish, as it was filmed just after Keaton learned that his production unit was to be shut down).
The extended rescue climax provides the heights of Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s ingenious choreography, but Keaton's brilliance as a performer shines just as brightly (if not more) in the simpler moments: the man could do more with a "take," a cocked head, or a flicked eyebrow than most performers could manage with their whole bodies. With a script officially credited to Carl Harbaugh but worked out in close collaboration with Keaton, Steamboat Bill, Jr. sports one of the star's most winning stories in its father-son triumph and redemptive triple rescue of the father, the bride-to-be, and the family business. It's appropriate that Keaton had a love of trains: his locomotive comedy stylings and screen persona suggest that "the Great Stone Face" could just as soon have taken the nickname "the Little Engine That Could."
Kino follows up its hi-def relaunch of Buster Keaton's The General with a Blu-ray debut and DVD reissue of Steamboat Bill, Jr. The image quality to the default "Buster Keaton Estate version" of the film is strong but less than perfect, given (low) contrast that detracts from detail. Still, the added resolution afforded by Blu-ray hi-def makes the disc a win overall, and the special edition also includes the full "Killiam Shows Archive" version of the film (1:10:29, HD) "comprised entirely of variant takes and camera angles" (it was, at the time, standard practice to strike two or more 35mm negatives, one for domestic and one for international distribution); while not as clean as the Keaton Archives version, the Killiam transfer offers clearer contrast. Naturally, there's a bit of telecine wobble to the images, but the transfer has a good film-like character with some lovely texture(s) and—remarkably, given the film's age—no jumps in the source print.
Audio options include a new score in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround performed by The Biograph Players, a Dolby Digital 2.0 version of the same score, and Dolby Digital mono vintage organ score by Lee Erwin. The Killiam version of the feature comes with a Dolby Digital 2.0 piano score by William Perry. (My personal preference is for Erwin's organ score, evocative of the great American movie palaces).
The disc includes a few other nifty bonuses, beginning with disc producer Bret Wood's "Visual Essay" (12:20, HD), a behind-the-scenes featurette that includes a comparison of the two versions.
Steamboat Bill: The Song presents two different recordings of the folk song that inspired the film: "Edward Meeker (1911)" (2:10, HD) and "Irving Kaufman (1919)" (2:48, HD).
"Why They Call Him Buster" (1:10, HD) is a Kino-produced promo for Lost Keaton that takes the form of a musical montage of Keaton pratfalls and stunts.
Last up is a Stills gallery.
No self-respecting film-comedy fan should be without a copy of Steamboat Bill, Jr.—and Kino's special edition is the best on the market.
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