Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Sherlock Jr. (1924) are consistently cited as Buster Keaton’s great masterpieces but I think there is there is more heart and affection in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), his marvelous follow-up to The General.
Keaton stars as a college dandy (complete with absurd mustache and beret) who arrives in the deep south to see his father (Ernest Torrence, who perfectly exudes tough love and gruff affection), a crusty paddleboat captain with a warhorse of a ship threatened by a brand new competitor on river. Buster is, naturally, in love with daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s nemesis, a modern moneybags determined to put Bill and his relic of a ship out of business.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. features a spectacular hurricane sequence that leads to some of Keaton’s most inspired gags and dangerous stunts (a side of a house falls on our hero, who survives thanks to a well-placed window). But under the spectacle is a love between father and son that neither can express except through action and a nervous city boy who transforms from an oblivious klutz into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent for mastering the mechanics of the riverboat in the midst of a storm.
Funny, sweet and inventive, it’s one of the great silent movie comedies.
Black and white, silent with music score
Steamboat Bill, Jr. fell into the public domain decades ago and has proliferated in poor quality TV prints, VHS tapes, and DVD releases. Both Kino Lorber and Cohen Film Collection have released high quality editions of this film. We only recommend superior editions at Stream On Demand.
Streaming on Criterion Channel (Kino Classics) and on Prime Video (Cohen Film Collection) for a limited time, and free on Kanopy (Cohen Film Collection), which is available through most public and college library systems.
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The General / Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Cohen Film Collection) [Blu-ray]
Steamboat Bill Jr.: Definitive Edition (Kino Classics) [Blu-ray]
The General / Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Cohen Film Collection) [DVD]
Steamboat Bill, Jr.: Ultimate 2-Disc Edition (Kino Classics) [DVD]
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It was not uncommon for filmmakers to prepare to separate negatives of a film and Keaton did so with Steamboat Bill, Jr., using different takes or, in the case of elaborate stunts and special effects scenes, simultaneous takes from separate cameras. The Kino two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray feature both. The familiar “Killiam” version, which has been in circulation for decades, includes a terrific piano score by William Perry and looks very good but the other version, mastered from a negative recently discovered in the Keaton estate archive, looks even better, thanks to superior source material, and it is presented with two different scores (a small combo score by the Biograph Players and an organ score by Lee Irwin). A 13-minute “Visual Essay” on the production also offers a comparison between the two versions and the set also includes vintage recordings of the old folk song “Steamboat Bill,” which partially inspired the project.
The more recent Cohen Film Collection edition is mastered from a new 4K restoration and features an orchestral score by Carl Davis. It’s on a double feature with The General, a perfect pairing with this movie, and includes the featurettes “Reflections on The General” and “Buster Keaton: The Luminary.”