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

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

SherlockJr

Sherlock, Jr. – 1924

Directors – Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Starring – Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, and Joe Keaton

The strength of any Buster Keaton performance is his supreme physicality. The man’s ability to use props, his co-stars, as well as his own body to carry out extremely fun and inventive sight gags and stunts is second to none.

Especially considering the fact that his subject of his derring-do often revolves around moving vehicles (trains and cars are what I’m thinking of specifically), it is made only that much more dangerous, and consequently impressive. The weak area of the Keaton films that I’ve seen thus far (The General, and this), are the parts where he has to carry the parts in between the major stunt set-pieces. While far surpassing a lot of the action sequences in most movie of his day, Keaton is trumped when it comes to the dramatic acting. In that arena he is bested by other comedians like Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers.

Sherlock, Jr. is a short film, lasting only about 35 minutes, which I think works in the film’s favor. If it were too much longer, it would drag, and if it were feature length it would eventually become agonizing! As it is, I was more than entertained by film the entire time, and caught myself checking my watch only because I was watching some food in the oven.

The music for this production, just like in The General, serves the purpose of helping pace the film. During the action sequences, the piano music is peppy and lively. Likewise when the story wants us to dwell on the Keaton’s love interest, the music slows down and we know what’s going to happen. This tendency of using the music this way helps to keep the slower parts interesting, but allows for no surprises in the plot. We know immediately what the tone of the scene is going to be. That being said, I don’t think anyone really watches a Buster Keaton movie wondering if he’ll actually get the girl, they watch to see him do what he does best…perform.

Now I realize that Buster Keaton is a pioneer in the movie industry, but he has so many films in this book of 1001, yet some who have carried on in his name like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are not recognized at all in this list.  While I am looking forward to seeing whatever else Mr. Keaton has in store for me in his other films, it seems only right that other performers get recognition too.  So if you liked Sherlock, Jr. check out Dragons Forever, Eastern Condors, or Armor of God (also known as Operation Condor 2: Armor of God).