I watched Steamboat Bill Jr. this morning on a DVD that I borrowed from the local public library. The reason why I chose to borrow this DVD was because of its star and how important his contributions to silent cinema are considered to be. Before talkies took over Keaton was considered to be the second most important film comedian after Charlie Chaplin, but unlike with the Chaplin films that I have watched I did not laugh much with Steamboat Bill Jr.
I wondered to myself why I did not laugh at Steamboat Bill Jr. To me there was really not much of a plot to the film as it was just one gag after another. Many of the gags felt quite familiar which is probably because they have been stolen and used by many comedians throughout the history of cinema. Keaton also uses a lot of stunts in the film but again they too look very familiar. Perhaps this could be because many of them have been reused by others several times since? Maybe I would have been more excited about the film back in 1928 when all these gags and stunts were still fresh?
I think that there is also a problem with Keaton’s persona in the film too. I know that he was known as old ‘stoneface’ due to the never-changing expression on his face, despite everything that he had to face, but here it seems to be more than a hindrance than a help when it comes to getting laughs. It is very hard to make an emotional connection to Keaton as he goes through all of these difficulties that he has to face during the film. Contrast this with Chaplin who was the king of pathos and knew just how to make audiences cry as well as laugh.
An example of what I mean can be seen in the climax of the film in which a violent wind storm lashes the town where Keaton has been staying. Buildings fall down around him and there are some incredible (for 1928) special effects and stunts, but you don’t feel any suspense or empathy for Keaton. The stunts don’t even really have much of a comic element to them, they just happen.
I’m not saying that Steamboat Bill Jr. was a horrible film. I did not turn the disc off until the movie was finished. It’s just that it is more entertaining today as a nostalgic trip back to 1928 than as a movie that will have you laughing your ass off.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a horrible film by any means. I think it’s just that the comedy has not aged all that well over the last 70+ years. I think that the best way to enjoy Steamboat Bill Jr. is to treat it as a nostalgic trip back to 1928 and look for an insight into what made cinema goers laugh back then. Maybe this was the wrong Keaton film for me to watch though as it was not really well received upon release in 1928. It didn’t do too greatly at the box office either. I do have another couple of Keaton films that I intend to watch, including The General, which is considered to be Keaton’s greatest film.