A movie could be made of Buster Keaton’s face alone; sombre and downtrodden, laced with an expression of wisdom beyond young years and framed by those forlorn and romantic eyes, it’s a singular landscape that’s hooked viewers for almost a hundred years. Of course, the man had the sense to place it in the context of ingenious set pieces which went on to define the artform, and deliver an energy that would ensure his place in the annals of film history. But how does one of his most celebrated movies, 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, hold up today?
Keaton plays William Canfield Jr, the son of a hardened steamboat captain who is as naive about the trade as he is about life in general. When he comes to join his father at River Junction, he doesn’t quite live up to his bloodline’s reputation for manliness; proving clumsy and with his head firmly in the clouds, he virtually ostracises himself from his blossoming relationship with his freshly reunited father. Like most of Keaton’s films, Steamboat Bill, Jr is a showcase for the actor’s (and uncredited director) timeless talents in terms of performance, even though the story itself hanging on a tender frame serving to skim over the meatier story points in order to reach a tremendous third act, a series of cinema-changing set pieces that Keaton, literally, risked his life to accomplish. Whenever Keaton is on full-physical mode, the screen lights up – but as for dramatic meat on the bone, there’s little here to satisfy. Not that the movie ever tries to achieve something bigger than what it is, serving as a real, live version of one of those great old posters that decried ‘suspense! action! romance!’ And it delivers all those with spades of laughter, and sated what the viewer of the age wanted.
But that’s the picture’s big – if sole – problem. It’s top-heavy in favour of its breathtaking climax, barrelling as quickly as it can towards it and dropping key elements to gain speed. The crucial relationships between William and his father (and also his newfound love interest) are sparse, to put it lightly, but what is there is still expertly drawn by director Charles Reisner’s eye for nuance. Regardless, this Keaton vehicle has endured the test of time for a reason: not the wild stunts, which have paled somewhat to today’s special effects-worn audiences, nor the tight writing that we take for granted. It’s Keaton’s presence and personality that wins us over; by being the silliest person in the room, he’s also the only one everyone else is looking at.