The universally accepted wisdom dictates that Buster Keaton is the greatest of the silent comedians, but I've always preferred Chaplin, basic camera setup and all. Of the two, Chaplin is the better filmmaker, but I will side with the conventional wisdom and say that Keaton is both a better director and a better actor. A month or two ago I sat down with my first Keaton picture, his official masterpiece The General, and was too wowed to laugh. Oh, there were gags aplenty, but I found myself more drawn to the incredible skill involved than the humor. I suspect I need another viewing to fully appreciate its comic side as well as its technical aspects, but I experienced no such problem with my second Keaton picture, Steamboat Bill Jr.
The plot, as with all silent comedy, is simple: our titular protagonist takes over his father's steamboat fresh out of college. Along the way, he falls for the daughter of his father's business rival. By comparison, The General is Rashomon. Normally such a simple plot exists as a loose narrative on which to hang various gags, but Keaton surprisingly makes the story genuinely relevant.
Not to say that the gags aren't great, though. Keaton, the master of deadpan, starts off small: he hops of a train wearing a carnation so his father can pick him out of the crowd, loses the carnation, and walks up to people shoving his lapel in people's faces to get them to notice the flower that isn't there. Then, it ramps up into classic slapstick: people get punched, fall into the river, etc. But Keaton's deadpan sells everything; silent film generally features a lot of overacting by today's standards, but no duh. Without sound, of course the actors resorted to pantomime. Keaton, however, walks through his films with a look of mild puzzlement, as if he'd just fallen into this black-and-white world and convinced himself he was just in a dream.
Even though the film concerns his trials and tribulations aboard the steamboat and his romantic quest, undoubtedly the film's most memorable sequence is the destruction of the town by a cyclone. Keaton's crew designed breakaway buildings and streets, and flung him about the place on a cable as if being hurled about by the twister. The scene is certainly funny, but again I found myself more amazed at the fact that such a trick could exist in 1928.
The sequence climaxes in the most recognizable image from any of Keaton's oeuvre, a shot so endlessly parodied and referenced that by all accounts it should have lost all its power. I'm speaking of course of the moment where Keaton stops in front of a house as the wall breaks apart and falls towards him, only for him to survive as he's standing exactly where the window ends up. It's utterly brilliant even today. Just think: he had one shot to get all this right, and he had to stand exactly in the right spot. There was no CGI or fail-safe to stop the wall if it looked like it was falling wrong; a few inches off the mark and Keaton would have been pancaked. Some people will do anything for a laugh, indeed.
At its heart, it's a simple tale. Like The General, this film doesn't set out to really teach us anything, which is A-OK in my books. Granted, I already stated I prefer Chaplin and his sentimentality, but even I have to admit he crosses the lines into preaching in more than one spot in more than one movie. Keaton just wants you to have a good time, and damned if you won't. Even after 80 years, Keaton's films hold up, and that's pretty impressive. Steamboat Bill, Jr. marked a transitional point for the filmmaker: after this he went to work for MGM, put out one last accepted classic (The Cameraman) and then lost creative control of his work. Where Chaplin defied the talkies for over a decade, Keaton found himself thrust into the new medium, and he never recovered. Cherish, then, this film, for it's one of the last gasps of genius from one of the best filmmakers of all time.