Steamboat Bill Jr. was the last of Buster Keaton’s 9 independent films made for Joseph Schenck and it was the last big comedic film of the silent era. His independent feature films for Schenck included:
Three Ages (1923)
Our Hospitality (1923)
Sherlock Jr. (1924)
The Navigator (1924)
Seven Chances (1925)
Go West (1925)
The General (1927)
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
The story takes place in the deep South on the Mississippi River. A rival boat called the “King” floats into the harbor at River Junction Bank. The owner of the boat boasts about how his new boat will run Mr. Canfield, the old riverboat captain, out of business. However, Canfield receives a telegram that his long lost son will be returning to visit him. Mr. Canfield hopes that his son is large and muscular to help him defeat his rival business owner of the King.
When his son, Buster Keaton, arrives at the train station he is shocked and dismayed at how effeminate and clumsy he is. In order to turn his weakling son into a man, they go into town so he can have a shave and get new clothes that don’t look foolish. It is in town that Keaton meets the new business owner and his lovely daughter. Their fathers want them to stay away from one another.
However, in the evening Buster Keaton sneaks away from his room to meet her but is caught by both fathers. The next day, both fathers get into a brawl and Canfield is arrested and imprisoned. Keaton tries to go break him out of jail but eventually he is in unsuccessful. Suddenly the weather conditions change and a cyclone begins to pick up. Buildings begin to crash down and people are blown away. In a very famous scene, the side of a building comes crashing down on Keaton and he is only saved by the third floor window that passes over him. The technical ingenuity of the cyclone scene is impressive, to say the least.
Keaton eventually rescues the girl who falls for him and his father who is in danger as the prison he is in begins to float away. The film ends as he rescues the town’s minister much to the appreciation of all parties. At the end his father respects him, the girl loves him, and all appears to close harmoniously.
The film was mostly shot in Sacramento, California. During the filming, Keaton’s increased abuse of alcohol caused him to perform highly dangerous stunts. In fact, the famous scene where the wall of a building comes crashing around him caused most of the employees to walk off the set rather than be a part of a stunt that could have killed Keaton -a real full size wall was used to perform the stunt.
Buster Keaton delivers yet another fantastic film filled with amusement and death defying spectacles that make contemporary hollywood special effects pale in comparison. The circumstances and background behind the film add to its somber place as one of Keaton’s best films, though not quite as perfect as Sherlock Jr. or The General.