Movie Review – “Steamboat Bill Jr.” (1928)

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If you love classic cinema, this question is bound to come up – Who is funnier? Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

This answer always varies from film buff to film buff. Chaplin was more emotional in his comedy and love to have exaggerated body movements, like a Looney Tune. Keaton, on the other hand, was far more story-driven and was known for his stone-face expression, like all these crazy shenanigans had no effect on him. Chaplin was known for his sketches and segments, while Keaton was a stunt-man, pulling off insane jumps and moves that had audiences reeling and terrified back in the 1920s.

Both certainly had their strengths over the other, and it was easy to see why the two of them were the leaders in silent comedy. While I consider myself a bigger Chaplin fan than a Keaton fan, there is something to admire about the stunts that Keaton was able to pull off, most coming either “The General” or this film, “Steamboat Bill Jr.”

This is where Keaton perfected the famous cyclone sequence, where an entire town is destroyed by a storm and Keaton is stuck right in the middle of it. His bed is blown throughout the collapsing city, while he is later forced to move against the hurricane-force winds, while a large truck comes barreling the other direction. But perhaps the most notorious part is when the side of large stone building is about to fall right on top of Keaton, only for him to be standing exactly where the window is.

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As with every other Buster Keaton film at this time, there was no trick photography with this segment. That was a real building falling down on top of the real Buster Keaton. No wires if anything went wrong, no editing to make sure Keaton wasn’t in danger, and no stuntman.

This scene has been parodied so many times that it has almost lost all meaning, but this is something to be truly admired. To pull off large-scale stunts like this, creating a miniature town only to have it be torn apart by a gigantic windstorm, in 1928 when nothing to that scale had been done before, says a lot when people are still parodying it. Almost 80 years later, and we’re still impressed by Keaton’s skill as a comedian and a stunt-maker.

However, outside of the cyclone sequence, “Steamboat Bill Jr.,” does not have much else going on for it. There are a few other cute comedic sequences, like Keaton trying on a bunch of different hats and his strict father turning down every hat his son liked, but that’s about it. Nothing too impressive about the rest of the film, but it is worth it for the final cyclone scene.

Final Grade: B

 

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