Steamboat Bill Jr. along with The General is considered to be Buster Keaton’s greatest film. I can see why people would say. It has a fun light story and much physical comedy from Keaton for which he was known for.
Steamboat Bill Sr. runs a steamboat called the Stonwall Jackson. It has been running up and down the Mississippi River successfully for a number of years. The rich banker in town J.J. King has created a newer, better, and classier steamboat and plans to run Steamboat Bill out of business.
Bill gets a letter from his son William Canfield Jr. (Keaton) telling him he will be coming by train and will be wearing a white carnation. Bill has not seen his son since he was a little baby and is excited to see him. At the train station almost every man who disembarks is wearing a white carnation on their jacket. The last man to get off the train is short, is wearing nice clothes, carrying a small guitar, and had a mustache. It takes Bill some time to realize this feminine looking man is his son. Bill takes Willie to the barber telling the barber to “Take that barnacle off his face.” While in barber’s a young woman is getting her haircut as well and recognizes Willie from Boston. The girl is J.J. King’s daughter Willie. Bill next tries to get his son working clothes and a new hat for the boat but that of course falls apart.
When King sees Willie dressed in his sailing outfit he laughs hysterically that he is Steamboat Bill’s son. Willie and Kitty try to speak to each on their respective steamboats but they each getting kicked off the other boat when they try to go aboard. Each father tells their child that they will be picking their future spouses since they are not choosing the right ones themselves.
After a short time with his son Bill has had enough of Willie so he buys the boy a ticket on the next train back to Boston. When Bill walks back to his boat he sees there has been a sign posted that the Stonewall Jackson has been condemned as unsafe. Bill knows exactly who had that sign posted and goes straight over to J.J. King. Bill goes after King and the banker has the steamboat captain thrown in jail. At hearing the news of his father being put into jail, Willie comes back to town to try to get him out. He is almost successful sneaking in a loaf of bread filled with tools to break his father out but in perfect comedic style the tools fall out of the bread and he says that the bread must have fallen on the tool chest while he was baking it. Bill gets out but Willie gets caught and rather have his son take the heat Bill comes back to take his place in jail.
A ferocious storm rips through the town dragging Willie through the town with it. At the end of the storm the Stonewall Jackson is the only riverboat still afloat while King’s has not fared well at all.
In the end Willie gets the girl and becomes a bit of a hero when he saves King from the water.
I loved Buster Keaton in this film. He just had the perfect look and body language for a clumsy young boy in love as well as one who is trying to make a good impression on a father he barely knows. I was cracking up over Keaton the moment he steps off the train with a thin mustache looking so preppy. Keaton is physical comedy personified and I am sure this film is the reason he has that reputation. This film has the famous scene where the front frame of a house falls on Keaton with the open window falling on him and he goes through it. It was great finally seeing that scene in context I am so used to seeing it in film montages I never saw the scene in the actual film until now. It was not only hysterical but extremely tense!
Steamboat Bill Jr. has a simple story of two fathers hating each other so they keep their kids apart from each other as well. Romeo and Juliet as a silent comedy film… perfection. I enjoyed sitting through every minutes of Steamboat Bill Jr. Buster Keaton never fails to be funny for one moment. The humor of his stories is so innocent and his delivery of the humor is so physical that they just blend perfectly. Steamboat Bill Jr. is without a doubt a comedy classic and deserves to be for its brilliance in story and acting. It is a classic comedy not to be missed.