Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. – 1928

Director – Charles Reisner

Starring – Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, and Marion Byron

A big debate amongst cinephiles is the merit of a film whose sole intent is entertainment, dispensing of deadweight such as message, stakes, and emotional heft.  Today these types of films are called “Popcorn Films” or “Blockbusters”, and they are designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, kids, elderly, men, women, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds.  No one demographic is really ever left out of the mix when talking about the audience for a film like this, with the exception of one…film snobs.  Does it have to be this way?  Are the visual hijinks, daring physical feats, and very basic storyline of something like Steamboat Bill, Jr. enough to make watching it worth while?  You bet!

This time around (just like most of the other times around) Buster Keaton finds himself the subject of scorn by an adult or an authority figure.  Despite this treatment, he remains almost blissfully unaware, and instead focuses his attention on the pretty young girl who has caught his eye.  Some sort of catastrophe occurs necessitating Keaton to spring into action, simultaneously proving the nay-sayers wrong and confirming the young girl’s belief in him.  Keaton invariably does this by demonstrating his physical prowess in an impressive and hilarious way.

Okay, so the story line is pretty much the same in each of his movies, only the setting and some of the plot points change.  One time it’s a train, the next it’s a steamboat.  He want’s to be a detective in one and the next he wants to play the violin.  This really isn’t all that different from other of Keaton’s peers, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers for example, were basically the same characters in multiple different movies, but does that remove any of their value, or the value of the film?

I submit to you that this is the best of Keaton’s films that I’ve seen so far.  I say this solely on the strength of the last 30 minutes of the film knowing full well that by then the story has almost completely finished.  We watch Keaton twist and contort his body against the force of a hurricane.  He has to dodge and weave, avoiding entire houses as they collapse around him, and in this flurry of activity I lost track of time and stared in wonder watching him go.  Whereas, during the first 45 minutes I found myself feeling restless and a little board, by the end I was on the edge of my seat.  The only disappointing part, was that the film wasn’t a full hour and fifteen minutes of that.

While I know what to expect from the storyline of a Keaton film, I will keep coming back and watching them because I also know what to expect from the sense of action and adventure from a Keaton film too.  This is my favorite of his films so far, and I don’t say that lightly.

“Buster Keaton, the inventor of break dancing.” – Ashley

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock – 1955

Director – John Sturges

Starring – Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Walter Brennan

Coming into this film, I knew only the blurb that I’d seen in the 1001 Movies book, and frankly I was pretty excited to check it out.  The premise is pretty standard, yet pretty compelling.  A man gets off a train in a lonely desert town, no one knows why he’s there yet they immediately distrust him, eventually leading to threats of violence and confrontation.  I was instantly grabbed by this concept.   I wanted to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, once I did, I wished I had just lived with my imagination of what it might be.

First off, Spencer Tracy isn’t a bad-ass.  Based solely on the description, it seemed to me that Tracy’s character would have to be a hard as nails, no-nonsense type of guy.  Someone who could take care of business if the situation called for it.  What we got was a rather weathered old man who never seemed willing to stand up for himself.  The townsfolk took a lot of pleasure in pushing him around, and he took great care to try to keep from provoking them any further.  He took loads of abuse when it seemed like he should be handing some out.

The bad guys, while actually pretty bad people, didn’t provide any interesting motivation for their cruelty.  The set-up of the story hints at some terrible secret that the entire town is trying to keep quiet, and when Tracy’s character arrives, everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that he is there specifically to position blame.  Aggravatingly, nobody ever stops to ask any questions, instead they stubbornly decide to be vague and confrontational with their dealings with one another.  I’m sure if the towns people ever asked the Macreedy why he was there, they could have saved themselves an awful lot of trouble.  Instead they start trouble almost immediately

As far as the supporting bad guys go, I would have expected more from a cast featuring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, both actors that I really like in other roles.  It wasn’t until the credits that I realized that Lee Marvin was in it, or that he played a fairly prominent character.  The character of Reno played by Robert Ryan was probably the only character I found somewhat interesting, unfortunately he seemed a little under-developed, and lacked any real motivation by the end.

One of it’s most gorgeous attributes, the scenery in which it was filmed, was mis-used as well.  It was rare that we ever saw the panoramic vista’s in which the town was supposedly set.  It’s too bad really, as the location would have given the audience insight into the isolation (both literally as well as the town’s isolation from decency) that each of the people in town was subject to.  The one major theme of the film seemed to be the fact that each character was in one way or another alone, some for their crimes, and in the case of Macreedy, his  isolation from any help or safety.

Unfortunately, this is another film that I’d have to say is just taking up a precious spot on this list that rightfully deserves to go to another film.  While it wasn’t awful, it was by no means one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S.  Although it has nothing to do with Bad Day at Black Rock, I recently watched  film that I thought for the life of me was on this list.  To my dismay, it was not.  To my further dismay, films like Bad Day at Black Rock, are!  The film in question is Peter Bogdanovich’s, Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neil and a “father” and “daughter” team of hucksters, traveling their way across depression era America swindling what they can from whoever they are able to.  It features a performance from the always fantastic Madeline Kahn, and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful looking films I have ever seen.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.