“Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence, The King of Kings) is a tough man whose steamboat business rests on the fact that he is the only game in town, despite his (and his steamboat’s) unpolished appearance and no-nonsense attitude. When J.J. King (Tom McGuire, who went on to a long list of uncredited policeman roles in the sound era), the town’s banker, decides to add one more business venture to his portfolio by starting his own, modern, high-class steamboat company, Steamboat Bill knows he’s in for a fight. Compounding his troubles is the arrival of his son, William Canfield, Jr. (Buster Keaton, Sunset Boulevard), a foppish college grad who hasn’t seen Steamboat Bill since he was a child and who has never worked a day in his life. Add in a budding romance between Junior and King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron, Trouble in Paradise) and a cyclone, and you’ve got the makings for a lot of trouble for Steamboat Bill.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Buster Keaton’s last comedy before he stopped producing his own movies and signed a contract with MGM. The move would be disastrous, as Keaton was unable to work within the confines of the studio system. While not quite his best work (I’d rank The General and Sherlock Jr. ahead of it), Steamboat Bill, Jr. features some hysterical moments of slapstick and amazing stunt work, particularly in the climatic storm sequence, which features Keaton running through a town that’s being literally ripped apart, with plenty of near misses from falling buildings, electrocution, and even a brief scene which finds Keaton on a stage. It was fun seeing Keaton play a slightly different character than usual (a college fop) and Ernest Torrence’s disgust and disbelief at how his son turned out is hilarious. Byron and Keaton make an adorable pint-sized couple (she was 4’11″, he 5’6″), and I thoroughly enjoyed their “meet cute” on a pair of barber chairs. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is available on Netflix Instant and YouTube Movies and is well worth a look by Keaton fans who’ve yet to see it, fans of silent movies looking to branch out from the classics, or people looking for a good introduction to silent comedy.
No trailer, but the cyclone sequence: