Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner, 1928)


Buster Keaton (William Canfield Jr.). Directed by Charles Reisner. Rating: U. Running time: 70 minutes.

Just look at that face, and tell me it isn’t marvellous. It had always been clear to me just what a fine actor Keaton was, but it wasn’t until last night, seeing Steamboat Bill at the BFI to the sound of live piano after an introduction by Jim Broadbent, that I really understood the extent of his genius. There’s something about watching the big screen without distractions that brings out qualities in films you could never perceive watching at home on television. And there’s something about watching films with people, an audience, that transforms your attitude. You feel free to laugh physically as well as mentally, and the pleasure is purer and raised up to a higher level as a consequence.

Broadbent, surprisingly, didn’t help that process. Perhaps I shouldn’t be shocked. I have, after all, seen enough Parkinson interviews and Oscar acceptance speeches now to know an ability to act doesn’t necessarily translate into real-life eloquence and sophistication. Day-Lewis, for instance, doesn’t seem to be a let down, but De Niro? My God. It’s quite a difficult revelation to deal with, but I had thought anyway that I’d get more out of Jim than the repeated remark that Keaton was ‘amazing’, ‘great’, ‘very good’, accompanied by similar weasel words about the film. The only introductory comment of merit was an anecdote about how back in the 70s there was an art-house multiplex on Oxford Street (how times have changed), and that’s where he first saw Keaton: double-bills, live piano, reaching UK screens for the first time, and Steamboat Bill for him had been the standout. In fairness, he probably wasn’t helped by the interviewer asking questions about such trivial and evidently ridiculous things as whether the dash of slapstick in his tedious portrayal of Denis Thatcher could trace its roots back to Buster.

But when the film began, so did the magic. For those semi-familiar with Keaton, you will have noticed a deeply discernible disparity in pace between his early frantic shorts and his calmer, composed later features. At 70 minutes, Steamboat Bill is firmly in the latter camp. We’re still treated to punchy sequences of effects and stunts quite shocking in their intricacy, and there’s no hint of a lack of ambition and ideas accompanying the sense that this is a man that has matured since his hyper-productive period around ’22. But the focus is definitely different. We’re given buckets more close-ups, reflective of the fact that he was increasingly interested in making us laugh with his face, no longer so reliant on his ultra-athletic yet scrawny body.

And laugh we do. The premise is that a son comes of age and arrives to work for his father operating his boat, but it’s soon clear Buster’s persona here is the silent precursor to Forest Gump: well-intentioned, even cute, but also timid and tragically clumsy. Very loosely, the story is of a son growing to gain respect in his father’s eyes, not least through devising a cunning if inevitably calamitous attempt to free him from jail, before miraculously saving his life as a storm tears the town in half.

After so many beautifully constructed and charming sequences the pace picks up, and there are visual gags galore. From wild winds blowing his bed around town to a falling house famously appearing destined to squash him, only for the narrow window to align perfectly for his body to unknowingly squeeze through. This is simply cinema at its finest. I pity those that won’t get to watch this maestro weave his magic in the way it was supposed to be seen: in cinemas, in the dark, with others and with live music; a recipe for a night to remember.

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