Given its renown, I had high hopes for this one. It’s amusing, watchable and has that Buster Keaton charm… but it never truly catches fire in the way that some of his other films like The General, Seven Chances or The Navigator do. Even though many other good films suffer in comparison with Buster’s best, I feel this isn’t a film that would convince newcomers to silent film – it’s one for those who crave more Keaton magic.
Steamboat Bill is an unsalty dog. He’s an uncomplicated, straight-up man’s man who’s been running his rickety old passenger steamboat from the town of River Junction for years. He hasn’t seen his son since he was a boy but he’s looking forward to seeing the fine man he’s grown up to be in his years in Boston. He’ll show this tall, strong young man the ropes so he can be just like him… and take over as captain of the Stonewall Jackson when he grows old. Imagine his disappointment then, when he meets the future Steamboat Bill Jr. at the train station and finds the short, skinny Buster Keaton – a dandified horror of Boston gentrification, complete with thin moustache, beret and ukulele.
People are laughing. The wealthy J.J. King, who owns half the town and is trying to run Bill out of business with his fancy new steamer, King, thinks it’s hilarious that his son is such a fop. Even Bill’s first mate can’t keep a straight face. Bill does his best to set the lad straight, but perhaps it’s too late. Worse again is Junior’s choice in women – King’s daughter has caught his eye and he sees nothing wrong with paying his respects to the man as her father.
Much of the comedy in Steamboat Bill, Jr. comes from the tug of war between a father and son who want different things. Whether it’s picking a hat, clothes or friends. There’s a similar tug of war between Kitty King and her father, but she’s more strong-willed than our lovable fool. Her determination and charm are the only things that can convince Junior to defy his father. All those around him have strong personalities. They know what they want, but does Buster? It really is up to him to prove himself to all of them and gain their respect, whatever they think of his choices.
That’s pretty much all Steamboat Bill, Jr. is. It’s amusing enough and easy to watch but doesn’t have the comedy of Seven Chances, the narrative appeal of The Cameraman, the perfection of The General or the stunts of Seven Chances. While perhaps its stunts do impress considering how they were filmed, they’ve been surpassed in the almost ninety years since. It’s a film that could be recommended to almost anyone, but only after they’ve become fans of Buster Keaton.