Steamboat Bill, Jr., like The Cameraman, displays a mastery of mise-en-cadre which no other comedies have equalled. The difficulty lies in choosing only a few illustrations from a film in which every important shot so persuades our eyes of its seemingly effortless aptness. There are, as always, the spectacular moments: think of Buster, poised like a statue, apparently pondering something else amid all the silence, as the building lands on all sides of him; think of Buster, his feet clawing the earth to which the rest of him is virtually parallel, leaning into a cyclone. As always at such moments, Keaton knows that what the actor is up to is so extraordinary that the camera must record it from a proper distance and without comment. But at least for me, it’s in moments less intrinsically compelling, moments that would otherwise serve only the needs of exposition, that Keaton’s camera eye asserts its power most tellingly.
The plot requires, for example, Buster to discover that the girl he loved back East is a native of his own River Junction. Since Keaton seldom resists the chance to exploit the peculiarly filmic capacity for turning the most ordinary locale into the site of discovery, he places the crucial encounter in a barber’s shop, where the identical white cloths that cover all customers set off faces with particular clarity, and where fixed equidistant chairs allow for all manner of spatial redefinition by means of camera placement. Buster occupies his chair at the left of the frame, the girl hers at the right; each sits with head lowered, each faces right. On and on they sit, oblivious of each other, as two barbers administer to them. Then one barber reverses the position of the girl’s chair: at last they are face to face. But their eyes remain lowered; what’s more, the new position even increases the distance between their faces. Yet we know that, late or soon, one or the other of them must lift an eye. The absurdity of their common unconsciousness assumes dramatic tension. Distinctions between gag and plot and visual composition are effaced.
Later, Buster arrives on a visit to his imprisoned father. Ernest Torrence, behind bars, writhing at the very sight of his own son, dominates the left foreground. In the middle ground, seen through the bars, stands the jailer, separating father and son in the depth of space precisely as in his professional function. In the background, framed in the doorway to the right, the light from outdoors setting him off with agonising clarity, stands a creature no father could acknowledge as his own: Buster in an ill-fitting work suit that dwarfs him utterly, an upturned umbrella looming above his head. Here once again the picture is the drama: with its three distinct planes so forcefully defined by the foreground bars and background wall, the shot exploits the depth of cinematic space as cannily as any in the Toland-Welles-Wyler canon.
Keaton takes pleasure in other kinds of pictures as well, as when the wind blows the bedridden Buster through town. Placed dead centre in the long-shot frame, sitting bolt upright in the bed that only a moment before seemed safely moored in a hospital, he finds himself the object of scrutiny on the part of an odd new audience: on either side of him bemused horses gaze from their stalls at the prodigy that has just manifested itself in their stable. Unlike the images in the barber’s shop and jail, this lunatic version of a traditional Nativity performs no specific errand for Keaton’s plot. It is merely ideal of its kind.
E. Rubinstein, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1975
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Directed by: Chas. F. Reisner
©: Joseph M. Schenck
Production Company: Buster Keaton Productions
Distributed by: United Artists
Presented by: Joseph M. Schenck
Supervised by: Harry Brand
Assistant Director: Sandy Roth
Script/Titles: Carl Harbaugh
Photographed by: Dev Jennings, Bert Haines
Editor: J. Sherman Kell
Technical Director: Fred Gabourie
Assistant Technical Director: Sandy Roth
Stunt Double: Louise Keaton
Buster Keaton (Willie Canfield Jr, ‘Willie’)
Ernest Torrence (William Canfield Sr, ‘Steamboat Bill’)
Marion Byron (Marion ‘Kitty’ King)
Tom Lewis (Tom Carter, the first mate)
Tom McGuire (John James King)
With Carl Davis score
BIG SCREEN CLASSICS
Mon 17 May 14:30; Fri 28 May 21:00; Wed 2 Jun 18:10 (+ pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large) Mon 28 Jun 21:00
Touch of Evil
Tue 18 May 14:30; Mon 31 May 12:45; Sat 5 Jun 17:50; Sun 20 Jun 18:15
The Tango Lesson
Tue 18 May 20:45; Wed 9 Jun 17:50 (+ pre-recorded intro by So Mayer, author of ‘The Cinema of Sally Potter’)
Wed 19 May 18:00; Sun 30 May 12:40; Mon 21 Jun 20:45
L’eclisse (The Eclipse)
Thu 20 May 14:15; Sat 5 Jun 12:10; Tue 15 Jun 17:50
Thu 20 May 17:50; Sat 29 May 21:00; Wed 16 Jun 21:00; Fri 18 Jun 20:40
The Last Picture Show (Director’s Cut)
Fri 21 May 20:30; Mon 31 May 12:50; Mon 7 Jun 17:45
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Sat 22 May 12:00; Thu 3 Jun 14:30; Tue 22 Jun 18:30
Cleo from 5 to 7 Cléo de 5 à 7
Sat 22 May 21:00; Thu 10 Jun 21:00; Mon 21 Jun 14:30
The Big City (Mahanagar)
Sun 23 May 12:10; Wed 23 Jun 17:40
The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo)
Sun 23 May 15:20; Thu 24 Jun 17:40
The Night of the Hunter
Mon 24 May 14:30; Tue 8 Jun 20:50; Wed 16 Jun 18:15 (+ pre-recorded intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large)
The Killers + pre-recorded intro by Imogen Sara Smith, author of ‘In Lonely Places: Film Noir beyond the City’
Tue 25 May 20:30; Tue 8 Jun 14:30; Wed 23 Jun 17:50
Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten)
Wed 26 May 17:50; Tue 1 Jun 14:30; Fri 25 Jun 20:45
Thu 27 May 18:20; Mon 14 Jun 21:00; Thu 24 Jun 21:10
Fri 28 May 18:10; Sat 12 Jun 16:00; Tue 29 Jun 14:15
Sweet Smell of Success
Fri 4 Jun 15:00; Sun 13 Jun 15:45; Sat 26 Jun 11:40
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Fri 4 Jun 17:50; Sun 27 Jun 18:20
The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)
Sun 6 Jun 18:10; Sat 26 Jun 16:30
Le Doulos + pre-recorded intro by Professor Ginette Vincendeau, King’s College London
Mon 7 Jun 14:15; Thu 17 Jun 20:45; Wed 30 Jun 17:45
Sun 20 Jun 13:00; Mon 28 Jun 17:55
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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