Buster Keaton faced two crippling calamities in his professional life; the first was out of his power, the second he caused. The former was the advent of sound relentlessly weeding out the unadaptable, the latter was signing with MGM which Keaton stated was ‘the biggest mistake of my life’. This new contract left the perfectionist Auteur without control over the string of financially successful, but critically panned pictures. By the 1930s, Keaton was out of business.
Through the next couple of decades, Keaton existed in blink-and-you-miss-it roles in innumerable TV shows and movies. Some were classic pieces of cinema like Chaplin’s Limelight and Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but Keaton’s alcoholism and failures led to a crippling of career and confidence. Finally, Old Stony Face resigned from the hijinks of the industry to a sedate life raising chickens in the San Fernando Valley, believing his work was nothing more than a faded memory.
But the 1960s proved this belief wrong. Prints in destitute condition or thought to be lost altogether were restored for a tribute in the 1965 Venice Film Festival. Thankfully, Keaton lived to see the revival of almost all his work but is quoted as saying ‘The applause is nice, but too late’. It may have been too late to save his career, but it was not too late to secure a legacy and cement the name Buster Keaton as one of the most influential filmmakers, not just in comedy, but cinema.
Premiering the same year as the phenomenal The Cameraman, Steamboat Bill Jr is considered the last truly great Keaton film on the precipice of these events. The story follows William Canfield Jr (Buster Keaton) as he joins his cantankerous father’s riverboat crew.
All the boxes of a classic Keaton story are ticked; a romantic subplot, a heart stopping climax and a goal Keaton will inexorably rush at without hesitation. In Steamboat Bill Jr, the goal is to impress his father, a man twice as tall, three times as wide and a thousand times manlier. As in all his pictures, it is an honest goal for an honest man and Keaton wins admiration for his earnestness in every attempt.
In one scene, Jr’s father takes him shopping for a ‘proper’ work outfit for the filthy ship. However, the next day Buster emerges in a self picked elegant captain’s attire. Jr plays the part, calmly surveying the ship and giving orders for the benefit of his father and his love. It is funny because of Jr’s absolute conviction in what he is doing and the reasons for doing it, even though he is hopeless in this role and quickly loses his suave facade.
Present are Keaton’s favoured techniques at their pinnacle; the undeniable logic, the unbelievable stunts and the unique Keaton Curve, so titled by Walter Kerr in his novel ‘The Silent Clowns’. The Curve is characterised as a moment in which Keaton seemingly escapes a situation, only to find himself where he started. In one excellent sequence, Jr attempts to break Steamboat Bill out of jail. From the commencement, a multitude of mishaps befall Keaton as he frees his father, but moments later Bill ends right back behind bars where he started.
Keaton remarks about his technique for diverting expectation – ‘I always want the audience to out-guess me, and then I double cross them’. And he always does. If we believe he has reached safety amidst a giant hurricane, the house falls down around him. If he is about to be crushed, a window just large enough saves his life. He draws us in with what we expect to happen and then delivers something better.
It is the root of most trouble, but the undeniable logic is the source of many spectacular stunts. In the finale, the jailhouse is flooding, water rises around Bill. Jr has moments to save his father and so cracks open the jail by ramming the steamboat into it. He is a man that acts first and thinks second, but there is logic in the unthinkable.
These inspired styles and ideas are found across the spectrum of Keaton’s work; Keaton can not step outside the home of the murderous family in Our Hospitality so he stays the night, The General uses literal curves on tracks for near misses of collisions and cannons, Seven Chances’ logic of advertising for a wife leads to a monumental chase and Sherlock Jr’s magic trick stunts curve around every expectation.
It is a delight to see these concepts and new discoveries merge at the apex of his career. The finale is a catalogue of balletic stunts to challenge the danger of his pervious work, a steamboat joins the list of other grand props from trains, to steamships, and the unchained camera movements, though not as clean as Murnau or precise as Lang, perfectly compliment Keaton’s vivacity, energy and dangerous uncertainty of an accident prone individual.
Buster Keaton was a great auteur who bashed, crashed, smacked, exploded, tumbled and got back up. He was unbreakable physically, technically and expressively. He was a filmmaker many admired, more imitated but few matched. He is a man not defined by a singular film, but by a collective experience. To send Keaton off properly, I will end his inclusion in his own words –
‘I’ve had a few dull moments [in my life] and not too many sad and defeated ones. In saying this, I am by no means overlooking the rough and rocky years I’ve lived through. But I was not brought up thinking life would be easy. I always expected to work hard for my money and to get nothing I did not earn. And the bad years, it seems to me, were so few that only a dyed-in-the-wool grouch who enjoys feeling sorry for himself would complain’. I like to think he said it with a smile.
The finale. Caught in the middle of a brutal hurricane splintering the small town to pieces is Jr. Minutes of madness follow Jr dashing for cover and ultimately saving the say. It is impossible to describe all the antics, much less the comic timing Buster brings to each stunt, so instead I will leave this vague so not to spoil Buster Keaton’s final triumphant finale.