It says something about the dedication to your craft when most of your crew walks off the set in fear that a stunt will kill you. The iconic “house fall” in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr., a stunt you know without even seeing the film, is one of those moments. Keaton, devastated his studio would be closing as the major studios took over Hollywood, didn’t care if the full sized wall crushed him or not. He simply stands there, completely unflinching as a wall falls on top of him, the open window the only thing that saves him.
This takes place during the unbelievable finale of Steamboat Bill Jr., a staggering accomplishment for the period, and even today considering the sheer scale involved. A massive storm has hit Mississippi, toppling buildings, lifting roofs off hospitals, dumping prisons into flood waters, and sending Keaton’s hospital bed into a barn.
Unlike Keaton’s The General (which shares many similarities with Steamboat), this film is a bit slower. It builds to the insanity of the climax, letting Keaton’s own talents in terms of quirky facial expressions take over. Part of the problem is how fantastic the final act is. It is easy to overlook the subtlety that comes before. Various pratfalls and Keaton’s impeccable timing as he runs into things, making it seem like a legitimate accident, are priceless.
Keaton sells the quirkiness of William Canfield Jr., his father being a rigorous, tough boat captain. Canfield Sr. (Ernest Torrence) tries to rough Jr. up, picking out new hats, shopping for working clothes, and shaving off Jr.’s mustache. These are wildly incompatible people, yet a joy to watch, even if Keaton steals the entire movie.
Sr. and Jr. Canfield share a growing bond as the movie progresses, best evidenced in the jail break. Here, Jr. brings a loaf of bread loaded with tools to the jail where his father is being held. Keaton’s oddly effortless clumsiness leads to the tools spilling out all over the floor, the facial reactions of all involved priceless. Keaton states it happened when the dough fell in the tool box. However angry his father may be, this leads to an important sequence where Jr. punches the sheriff to secure his father’s escape, showing a bit of slapstick violence and growth of the character in the process.
Junior is not that bright, but is willing to go to great lengths to save the people in his life, even the villain of the piece. Junior sees nothing wrong with ramming an entire boat into a jail being swept away by flood waters, a testament to Keaton’s mindset of doing anything for a laugh, and creating incredible scale, qualities that make Steamboat Bill Jr. a standout.
Kino delivers an AVC encode for this Blu-ray debut, and those who viewed The General will find some of the lesser qualities of that transfer have carried over. The amount of edge enhancement at work here is as times overbearing. Catching every instance is almost impossible, but the worst are easy to spot. Keaton’s shoulders exhibit distracting black halos as he sits up in bed at 39:29, and the bed frame as it is swept into the barn at 58:31 is awful. Countless other shots exhibit these same halos, some to a lesser degree, like Keaton’s cap at 11:39 which shows another visible line running underneath it.
Still, a bit of edge enhancement would be acceptable. The issue here is one of contrast, which is so blown out, it can be nearly blinding. Any detail in the sky such as clouds are completely lost. It exists as a white spot on the screen. Long shots of crowds early celebrating the new river boat launch are blown out and muddy. Grain seems wiped from the frame by the contrast, existing only in darker areas of the screen. The multitude of offending scenes are even more common than the edge enhancement, some of the worst coming during the jail sequence as Keaton tries to break out his father. At 45:45, for a brief second, Keaton’s face is so flat and bright white, his eyes are nearly completely lost to the contrast. The posters around the cell at 46:50 look like plain white paper, all of the writing barely noticeable.
It doesn’t add anything like exaggerated depth. The image exists in a pale gray scale, with no real black levels to speak of. Scenes at night, like Keaton’s attempt to meet Kitty by crossing the boats via wood plank, are a bit lifeless. That would be acceptable had the contrast not been so pumped up. It is a terrible loss, as the minimalist print damage (all things considered) and rare film jitter are kept under control. The grain, which seems slightly heightened by all of this tinkering, is rarely offensive. Watch the first mates face as he looks up at 8:49, the grain taking on a digital quality and that contrast bleaching his face.
Much of the detail resolved by The General’s restoration was impressive. Here, it is merely sporadic. There is a lot that goes into revealing high fidelity detail on a source such as this, but you cannot help but think what this could have been. A grassy field at 1:02:16 is quite impressive, individual blades fully visible and defined. Pits of mud at 44:36 also reveal themselves cleanly, the type of even simple detail that is wholly lacking from this transfer as a whole.
The kicker of it all? Kino has included the Killiam version of the film (also in 1080p AVC), filled with numerous alternate takes or camera angles, as a separate version. While significantly softer with some extensive damage by comparison, all of that sharpening and artificial brightening is gone. It looks natural most of the time, which is exactly how the main feature should have turned out.
There are three audio track available for the main feature. The key mix is a DTS-HD 5.1 effort by the Biograph Players, a decent little track that suits the mood of the film, especially during the finale. The music is generally clean if a bit reserved, and not always at the peak of fidelity. Some cymbals clashing around 9:35 are notably strained. This surround effort does bleed into the rear channels, although not aggressively so.
A 2.0 mix of that same track is also included, although compressed. The final track, a personal favorite in terms of the music itself, is a mono organ score from Lee Erwin. Unfortunately, the source material sounds rough, and the added compression undoubtedly does not help. The Killiam version of the film only offers one track, a piano-based effort from William Perry.
In terms of fidelity and clarity, the Biograph Players win out by a wide margin, although some of the attempts at sound effects are frankly irritating. Despite the harsh level of noise and distortion, Lee Erwin’s score is the way to go.
Aside from the Killiam version, extras offer a Visual Essay, a making-of comprised of stills and all-around excellent information on the shoot (including locations). Two versions of the “Steamboat Bill” song are included, Keaton’s original inspiration to make this film. Why They Call Him Buster is a collection of stunts put together by Kino to advertise the release of Lost Keaton on DVD. A still gallery remains.
Note: For an interview on the restoration process and other tidbits, read DoBlu’s interview with Blu-ray producer Bret Wood.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us by Kino. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.