Steamboat Bill, Jr Review
This DVD is part of Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton's silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn't expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score - in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
Steamboat Bill, Jr
Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) was the last feature to be produced by Buster Keaton's own independent production company before he made his disastrous move to MGM, and it's a marvellous swansong, containing an all-time classic set-piece in the form of the cyclone sequence, and a consistently engrossing story with echoes of his earlier masterpiece Our Hospitality.
As with that film, it's about two feuding families, this time rival steamboat operators J.J.King and Bill Canfield. King is conspicuously the most successful of the two, having a large, uniformed staff and a real pleasure-boat of a paddle-steamer, while Canfield's is a rickety wreck. But hope is at hand when a telegram arrives from his son, whom he hasn't seen since he was a baby - maybe he'll turn out to be a strapping lad with all the business skills that his firm so badly needs?
Sadly, young Willie Canfield (Keaton) is a severe disappointment: it's hard to say which his father finds more objectionable - the beret, the ukulele, the moustache or the general air of effete dandyism (as reproduced on the DVD box shown to the left). The moustache and ukulele are easy to get rid of, but the disposal of the beret involves one of the funniest scenes in all Keaton's output, where he and his father visit the local milliner and try on a variety of hats, each one dramatically altering his personality, until he ends up with the familiar Keaton boater.
Already off to a bad start, things get worse as Canfield tries to teach his son how to run the boat - a task at which he's not only a miserable failure, but he compounds his poor performance by falling in love with King's daughter, just about the worst crime he could have committed in his father's eyes (and indeed his rival's!). But when Canfield is arrested after picking a fight with King, his son is the only hope he has of springing him out of jail...
The film's climax is one of the most celebrated sequences in all of Keaton's films - indeed, in silent cinema in general. The story called for a natural disaster, originally scripted as a flood but hastily changed to a cyclone after some disastrous floods in 1927 caused great loss of life (ironically enough, Keaton found out later that cyclones killed far more people than floods on an annual basis!).
The cyclone roars through the town leaving a trail of devastation in its wake, leading to a hugely inventive series of visual jokes culminating in one of the most famous sight gags in film history - where the front of a building falls on top of Keaton, who is saved from being crushed to death by virtue of him standing in precisely the right place for a window opening to pass over him (it's worth noting that only was this done for real, but the cameraman apparently shut his eyes during the shooting as he couldn't bear to watch!).
Visually, this ranks with Our Hospitality and The General as being among the most sheerly beautiful of Keaton's films - the Mississippi River atmosphere is caught to perfection, despite being filmed in California. And in the Keaton canon as a whole, Steamboat Bill, Jr is on a par with The Navigator and only a notch below The General - though sadly the escalating budget (largely thanks to the last-minute switch from flood to cyclone) and financial problems with distributors United Artists meant that it was a box-office disaster, leading directly to Keaton signing with MGM and the beginning of the end for his career (though, to be fair, the first two MGM features The Cameraman and Spite Marriage are well worth catching, and I hope MGM release them on DVD).
For a film that's over seventy years old, this is a remarkably good DVD transfer - the original print was in excellent condition (very minor damage, but nothing serious), and the digital mastering is admirably crisp and clear, with a wide dynamic range and lots of fine detail. It's comfortably the best small-screen version of the film I've seen, and is one of the best transfers in the whole of Kino's series, only slightly below the standard set by Seven Chances. The largely organ-based score is by Gaylord Carter, and does a reasonably effective if unspectacular job. There are sixteen chapter stops.
The 20-minute Convict 13 (1920) is a mistaken identity farce in which Keaton knocks himself out while playing golf, and an opportunistic criminal who's just broken out of prison sees his prone body, strips his clothes off and replaces them with prison garb. The police catch up with them, let the real criminal go and throw Buster in jail. Worse, they then inform him that he's due to be hanged the following morning...
The picture quality starts off at an alarmingly low level: the first reel is very contrasty and lacks detail, with the top left-hand corner of the image badly over-exposed. Significantly, Tom Dardis' biography of Keaton claims that one of the reels was lost - and although a copy has clearly been tracked down since then, it's clearly a case of beggars not having much of a choice. This is certainly one of the worst prints in the whole of Kino's Keaton collection.
That said, poor quality is unlikely to be the DVD transfer's fault, since the picture improves noticeably in the second half, suggesting that the second reel was in much better condition - until the last couple of minutes, where the image is so murky and blotchy that it's frankly hard to make out precisely what's going on. The soundtrack is by Robert Israel, and consists of his usual music-plus-effects accompaniment. There are four chapters.
The 22-minute Daydreams (1922), opens with a title explaining that some of the footage is still lost, and that in its place they've substituted three stills and some explanatory intertitles - though the film turns out to be coherent enough. Yet again, Buster is wooing a would-be fiancée, but she (encouraged by her stern father) insists that he make something of himself - so he tries his hand at a variety of jobs, describing them to her in letters.
Unfortunately, her impressions rarely match up to reality - "I'm cleaning up on Wall Street" actually means that he's working as a street sweeper, while his triumphant theatrical debut, far from the title role in 'Hamlet', is actually as a background spear-carrier. It all concludes with an epic chase involving dozens of policemen - this film was made a few months after Cops, and was presumably a reaction to its popularity (come to think of it, it might even be out-takes from the earlier film!).
The original print is extremely scratched and contrasty, and badly lacking in fine detail - the DVD transfer does its best (and, to be fair, the film is never less than watchable), but it can only work with what it's given. The soundtrack is again by Robert Israel - mostly organ and some sound effects. Befitting the episodic story, there's a generous selection of six chapters.
So it's a great feature, but a couple of relatively lacklustre shorts - which means that this DVD isn't the perfect starting point for people new to Keaton's work - they'd be better off with The General, Our Hospitality or The Navigator. But fans of the film and Keaton in general should have few complaints.