STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. was Buster Keaton s last independent silent comedy and also one of his finest. He stars as the effete son of a gruff riverboat captain (Ernest Torrence), who struggles to earn his father s respect (and the love of beautiful Marion Byron). But the film is best remembered for the climactic cyclone sequence a slapstick tour-de-force in which Keaton s comedic stunts are performed amid the full-scale destruction of an entire town.
A stone-faced response to Harold Lloyd s The Freshman, COLLEGE follows a frail scholar as he tries to win the heart of a girl (Anne Cornwall) through athletics. Keaton used his own physical agility to brilliant comic effect, as his character suffers a series of crushing failures. But the greatest surprise comes at the end, when the scrawny intellectual finally releases the physical tiger within.
If you couldn't already tell by how much I gushed about Buster Keaton while reading my review for Kino Lorber's 'The General / Three Ages' Blu-ray set; I am a fan. Of the numerous and talented comedic performers of the silent era, Keaton is my favorite. There's something about his blend of deadpan dopiness and perfect physical comedy timing that always set him apart in my mind. With that in mind, I find it sad and unfortunate by how much he struggled to maintain complete independent control over his films. Amazingly enough, after a gem like 'The General' flopped, Keaton endured increased interference from studio heads and investors. While operating under that strain, Keaton managed to create two of his best films, 1927's 'College' and 1928's 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.'
Buster Keaton plays a bookworm who chides the rising appreciation of sports and athleticism over knowledge and personal growth during his high school valedictory speech. Unfortunately, his dear girlfriend played by Anne Cornwall doesn't feel the same way. While the speech was intended to rally his classmates around the importance of education and knowledge, he ends up pushing his girlfriend into the arms of his manly and brawny rival played by Harold Goodwin. With no means of winning her back, he enrolls in college to pursue a career in sports and athletics to win the fair maiden's heart.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Bill Canfield Jr. (Keaton) seeks to fulfill his mother's dying wish that her son reconnects with his father, the surly "Steamboat Bill" Canfield (Ernest Torrence), captain of the Stonewall Jackson. Little Bill Canfield is the exact opposite of his father leading to more than a little discomfort when the son falls in love with Kitting King (Marion Byron) the daughter of his rival J.J. King (Tom McGuire). As father and son attempt to eek out something resembling a relationship, a gigantic unseasonable storm will prove Bill Jr.'s bravery and his love for Kitty.
What started with 'Three Ages' sadly comes to an end with 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' Buster Keaton's rise and fall is like so many others that came before and after: exciting, tragic, yet always memorable. As a genuine talent in front of the camera as well as behind, it's sad to see the better years of his career come to a close but at the same time, it's amazing that we get to see anything the man had to offer at all. There is a rough statistic out there that boggles the mind but apparently, some 90% of all the films made during the silent years are lost for good. There wasn't any after market value for these films once they'd run their course. With no means or desire to store these films, most studios simply burned the reels of film. It's simple luck that we get to enjoy any silent films at all - let alone the numerous hilarious and heartfelt moments Buster Keaton committed to film.
'College' and 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' are a pair of unique Keaton entries. After 'The General' flopped he was under considerable pressure to perform and deliver a hit or he'd lose his studio. Under those constraints, Keaton delivered two of his best. While 'The General' is still my personal favorite, I can't deny how impressive 'College' and 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' are. They're both impressively intricate human dramas with terrific amounts of comedy and both feature some of the best stunt work Keaton performed - including some stunts that could have killed Keaton. The infamous wall fall in 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' required precision execution in order to perform. However, it was on the day that stunt was filmed that Keaton learned he'd lost control of his studio. According to legend, most of the crew walked off the set because they didn't want to see Keaton squished by a wall - and apparently, Keaton himself didn't care if the stunt worked or turned into a fatal accident he was so upset by the news. Thankfully it all went off without a hitch and Keaton the performer never tips his hat at the danger of the scene and continues on like nothing happened at all.
Ever since I met my wife, my knowledge and experience with classics and silent films greatly increased. 'College' was the one she brought to the relationship, and I'm forever grateful that she did. It's a hilarious film, make no mistake in that, but it's also one of Keaton's most heartfelt and romantic movies, second only to perhaps 'The Cameraman.' Keaton's films aren't the sort that I routinely pull out of the collection to enjoy. They require the right mood and readiness. You can't watch them with a phone in your hand or with all the lights on. They require complete dedication to the moment. That's perhaps the best compliment I can give to any filmmaker and Keaton's works deliver time and time again. Whether you start with some of his shorts or jump right into something like 'College,' The General,' or 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' you're going to experience one of the greatest cinematic performers of any era.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Steamboat Bill, Jr / College' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber in a two-disc Blu-ray set. 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' is given a Region A BD-25 disc while 'College' occupies a Region A BD-50 disc. Both discs are housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case. Each disc loads to a brief clip from the movie before reaching a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Steamboat Bill, Jr
With a fresh 2k restoration from Lobster Films, this 1.33:1 presentation is pretty damn great. Clarity, film grain, and detail are all subject to the condition of the original elements. To that respect, like so many other silent films this is a "best as it's gonna get" scenario. Even still, I was impressed. I had seen this film previously on DVD and while certainly in rough shape, it was never as bad as some of the near-unwatchable presentations of 'The General.' What's really great about this release is the detail and clarity, so much great stuff comes through - especially when Keaton is performing some of his signature stunts. It's actually chilling to see the wall fall scene now and know that there weren't any kind of safety wires or catches just in case something went wrong! Standard silent movie roughness in the form of scratches, speckling, and some flicker is evident, but nothing too terrible to knock the score for. All around another great looking release.
'College' is also given the 2k treatment for this 1.33:1 presentation, albeit with slightly less impressive results. Don't get me wrong, this is still the best I've ever seen the film, but overall its a softer presentation without the sharper and crisp detail levels that 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' got to enjoy. The image is at its best during the outdoor scenes when there is plenty of natural light to fill a scene. Like 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.,' 'College' endures some rough patches due to its age and how it was treated over the years. Nothing is a deal breaker here, pretty standard for a silent film presentation.
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Presented in LPCM 2.0, 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' comes packed with two scores, one by Lee Erwin on the organ and a full orchestral score by Timothy Brock. The Erwin organ score sounds pretty good overall, I love a good organ presentation for silent films, but the Brock score just fits better. I didn't have this experience with 'College' where I preferred the organ accompaniment, but the Brock score just feels more natural and in tune with the events on screen. You can't go wrong with either of them so it'll boil down to personal preference.
Presented in LPCM 2.0, fans get to enjoy two terrific scores, one from John Muri on the organ and another by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Both are very good at conveying mood and heightening the tensions and humor, but in this instance, I've got to tip my hat to the Muri score. Something about an organ just sounds more traditional when it comes to enjoying a silent film.
Steamboat Bill Jr.
Audio Commentary: Film Historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel provide an interesting and engaging track to listen to. They're a wealth of knowledge here and they have a genuine appreciation of Keaton's work.
Introduction: (HD 4:22) This is a pretty fascinating introduction by Serge Bromberg from Lobster films detailing the extensive restoration work. A lot of the improvements are possible because James Mason apparently had a copy of the film that no one knew about and it was discovered in a closet!
Alka-Seltzer Commercial: (SD 1:04) It's tough for Buster Keaton to pilot a ship when he's got a rumbly tummy. Thankfully Speedy shows up in the nick of time. These commercials are a "gas."
Audio Commentary: Rob Farr provides a pretty great commentary track here discussing the various aspects of filming, Keaton's career and so forth. It's a pretty great track.
Introduction: (SD 4:29) Serge Bromberg returns to introduce this film.
Lillian Gish Introduction: (SD 4:18) Another episode of "The Silent Years" where Gish talks about Keaton and her love for 'College.'
Tour of Filming locations: (SD 9:57) Host John Bengston, this is an interesting little featurette showcasing the various L.A. locations 'College' was shot at and how different everything looks.
'Run, Girl, Run' (1928) Short: (HD 18:27) Starring Carol Lombard, this is a fun little short that fits within the theme of 'College.'
'The Scribe' (1966) Short: (HD 29:31) This is an aged Keaton, but like a fine wine, he'd only gotten better. This is one of those silly construction safety shorts by the Construction Safety Association of Ontario, Canada. As Keaton's last performance, it shows he never lost a step.
Buster Keaton was a hell of a performer. There was a magic to his screen presence that made him a unique comedic force. As some of the last feature films he had complete control of, 'Steamboat Bill, Jr' and 'College' represent Keaton at his finest. Kino Lorber has done a terrific job bringing these wonderful films to Blur-ray with truly great transfers, wonderful scores, and a nice assortment of bonus features. Fans will absolutely want to consider a purchase. Highly Recommended.