Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) by matthew c. hoffman

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NOTE: For those who have wondered what the Film Historian talks about on Thursday nights, here is a transcript of an introduction. This one is on Steamboat Bill, Jr., which was screened tonight at the Park Ridge Public Library. To those who couldn’t make it out, I hope these spoken comments will motivate you to check out this amazing film. It’s one of my favorites because of the terrific cast, beautiful photography, and unforgettable gags. Fans instantly recall the iconic moments of the house falling down over Buster– which actually received an applause tonight!– but also the subtler moments which I feel rank with the best of Chaplin, such as Buster’s pantomime of a jailbreak during “The Prisoner’s Song.”

Before I begin, I want to point out that even though there is no charge to see these films here at the library, we are nevertheless paying a significant licensing fee in order to present them here for you. The Reader Services department needed help to make this series a reality, so I just want to acknowledge Dick DuSold who is the head of the “Friends of the Library” here in Park Ridge. The Friends generously contributed funds to this series, so if any of you know Dick personally, be sure to pass along a thank you to him…

“From the moment he began making short comedies independently in 1920, the whole repertoire—rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself—is there,” wrote Walter Kerr in The Silent Clowns. “The porkpie hat sits evenly astride his head, a companion so faithful that it floats patiently on the water long after Buster is presumed drowned, knowing that when he does surface he will surface directly under it. The girl stands beside him, stupid as can be, ready to help move a house that has been built on the wrong lot by propping it up with an automobile jack. The elements with which he is at odds and in which he is so much at home—wind, water, the natural geometry of a universe God made and washed His hands of—already swirl, pivot, fold and unfold about him, defying his efforts to nail them together with a hammer and then, as the hammer flies from his hand, politely fusing them for him. The brush he needs, if he is going to paint a hook on which to hang his hat, is available. So is a subway to take him directly to the North Pole. Peculiar as he is, Keaton arrives on the scene so placidly intact that it is impossible to chart him as a process, he can only be pored over as a map.”

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Tonight’s film features one of the most peculiar and original of all screen comedians: Buster Keaton. Steamboat Bill, Jr. showcases those unreal qualities about him while at the same time presenting us with real-life moments that shaped his comic world. His early life reads like a fantastic, American tall tale. Such was the life of The Great Stone Face.

When Buster was an infant, living in a boardinghouse, he had been sucked out of a window by an approaching cyclone. The definitive Keaton biographer, Rudi Blesh, wrote, “Before Joe and Myra were halfway up the stairs, their son was sailing high over trees and houses, too amazed to be afraid, and then coasting down a slow-relaxing ramp of air to land gently in the very center of an empty street”– four blocks away.

Silent film historian Jeffrey Vance tells of an equally hair-raising experience. In Buster Keaton Remembered, he writes, “As a seven-year-old boy in vaudeville Buster was fascinated with a ventriloquist’s dummy named Red Top; he even wanted to kidnap it as his playmate. The ventriloquist, named Trovollo, who owned Red Top discovered Buster’s plan to abduct his dummy after an evening show and sneaked back into the theatre just before Buster arrived. As Buster reached for Red Top in the dark and empty theatre, Trovollo, hiding behind Red Top, brought the dummy to life. Red Top shot up and yelled, ‘Don’t touch me, boy, or I’ll tell your old man!’ Scared out of his wits, Buster ran out of the theatre as fast as he could.”

Remember these particular moments as you are watching the film tonight. Movies are never created in a vacuum. They can be taken from real life. Buster’s adventures and experiences both in life and on stage shaped his comedic vision and informed films like Steamboat Bill, Jr

I love this artwork… even though there is no angry whale in the movie.

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Mark Twain meets Romeo and Juliet is one way– albeit, superficial– of describing the movie’s story. Buster plays the weakling son of a crusty riverboat captain (wonderfully played by Ernest Torrence) and falls in love with the daughter of his father’s rival. The character Kitty King was played by Marion Byron; she was only 16 years old at the time. As a bit of trivia, Byron could not swim, so in the scene where she’s in the water, that’s actually Buster Keaton’s sister, Louise, doubling for her.

The film features one of his most famous gags in which a building falls over him as he stands unaware in the street. (You saw a smaller-scale version of it earlier in his two-reeler One Week.) “The clearance of that window,” Buster had said, “was exactly three inches over my head and past each shoulder. And the front of the building—I’m not kidding—weighed two tons. It had to be built heavy and rigid in order not to bend or twist in that wind.” (The wind Keaton is referring to came from a half dozen airplane propellers that were used as wind machines in order to create the illusion of a hurricane.)

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It was a stunt so dangerous his own director, Chuck Reisner, wasn’t even on set to see it filmed. The cameraman had to look away. It was done in one take. “You don’t do those things twice,” Buster said. In later years, he remarked that he must’ve been mad at the time or he would never have attempted it. Some have speculated that he was in fact depressed because of a disintegrating marriage to Natalie Talmadge. Whatever his motives for putting his life on the line, it remains one of the most iconic images of visual humor showing not only Buster’s brilliance as a daring comedian but also his genius as a civil engineer!

Originally, the story was about a flood. However, then—as now—a comedy involving a flood would be a risky venture. So the climax was changed to a cyclone. Keaton got around this by moving the sets into the water instead of the water rising up to the sets. The whole cyclone sequence has a dreamlike quality that harkens back to Buster’s early childhood memories.

As a footnote, there was an alternate ending of this film made in which Buster Keaton smiles, but the preview audience was so against it the scene was removed. “Even the ash can groaned when we dumped it there,” Buster had said.   

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Besides being a brilliant Keaton film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a wonderful piece of Americana with its nostalgic recreation of paddlewheels and life on the Mississippi. Yet, the film was a commercial disappointment. The more disconcerting news for Buster, however, was the realization that his longtime partnership with independent producer Joseph Schenk had ended. Schenck was taking a full-time job at United Artists, so he convinced Buster to sign at MGM, where Joe’s brother worked. “My brother Nick will take care of you like his own son,” Buster was told. Both Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd advised Keaton not to do it. Signing with MGM would become, in Keaton’s words, “the biggest mistake” of his life. And we’ll talk more about that when I show The Cameraman on May 12th.

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So enjoy tonight’s film with the knowledge that this was Keaton’s last independent production before becoming part of the studio system in which films were made on a conveyor belt—not by creative impulse. Keaton’s halcyon days as a filmmaker had come to an end.

One final note, last week I said a few words about my process as a programmer, but it’s not just about selecting what films to show, it’s which versions of them to present. Tonight, we will be playing a fairly new dvd release from Kino– and we’ll be playing it with an organ score. What music accompanies a film is always important. I remember when Kino initially released Sherlock, Jr. it had what I thought was a terrible, modern score using a guitar, and there was this weird James Bond-like cue during the chase. It was just awful, so I am very glad they are re-releasing these films on dvd with alternate scores.

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