Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Two weeks ago, I returned to the cutesy charm of Old Town Music Hall to catch a matinee of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) along with my visiting friend. Earlier this summer, we had checked out the Sacramento locations for the film, so getting the chance to see it on the big screen together was quite the cherry-topper.

We made the Saturday afternoon drive out to the theater, arriving just in time to buy our tickets and find seating. There were only a handful of people scattered about inside, and the atmosphere was pleasantly quiet. It felt like another world. As part of the “variety show” aspect that comes with every feature screening, Bill Field opened up the show by playing a medley of songs on the Wurlitzer organ, followed by a sing-along. Before the hour was up, we were treated to a short screening of Our Gang Follies of 1938. I was familiar with the Little Rascals before, but had never seen a film of theirs until then.

My friend and I waited in our seats during intermission, chatting quietly and taking in the theater’s beautiful interior. Once the opening credits were projected and the lights started to dim, our anticipation was brimming. I already adore this film, but watching it after visiting the main locations undoubtedly adds a whole new layer of magic to it: like a time machine. The establishing shots in the opening scene left me with a fuzzy feeling, now that I could “see” the film beyond its two-dimensional aspect ratio. It felt real.

In the film, Buster Keaton plays William Canfield, Jr., who has just finished college and is visiting his father (Ernest Torrence) for the first time since he was a baby. After reading the belated telegram, Willie’s father imagines his boy to be a burly young man. “I’ll bet he’s bigger’n me,” he brightens. Of course, when they finally encounter Willie, he’s a pipsqueak of a thing. Conflict arises as in any traditional narrative—especially when Willie falls in love with his college co-ed Kitty King (Marion Byron), who just happens to be the daughter of Bill Sr.’s steamboat rival—but enough opportunity is provided for growth and change to occur within the father-and-son relationship.

This film is filled with endearing little moments that I find difficult to list out in its entirety, but some of my favorite bits include:

  • Willie’s collegiate look: the striped blazer, wide-leg trousers, patterned sweater vest, dotted bow tie, beret, and ukulele all form together to make the cutest thing ever even cuter.
  • The barbershop scene, with Willie giving the stink eye to the barber after his “barnacle” of a pencil mustache was shaved off in two clean strokes.
  • The hat shop scene, where Willie tries on a variety of hats and models them in front of the camera. Note: Buster’s trademark porkpie makes a quick appearance.
  • The town jail sequence, where Buster cradles a loaf of bread (with concealed tools inside) and casually acts out an escape plan for his father, who looks behind the bars with an incredulous look. Insert memorable quote: “I know what it is, you’re ashamed of my baking.”
  • Willie nonchalantly crossing his feet together in the car after he gets knocked out by the sheriff and thrown into the backseat. I feel like this is an extremely subtle yet hilarious gesture that often goes by unnoticed?
  • Basically, the entire movie.

This was my second viewing of Steamboat Bill, Jr. on the big screen. I had seen it last year during the TCM Film Festival, which was, in a sense, larger than life. However, even amid such a smaller setting, I’m always collecting new memories and sometimes finding new things in a scene that I hadn’t noticed before. I also don’t have it in me to pass up any (local) opportunity to catch a screening of Buster’s, so there’s that.

2 thoughts on “Steamboat Bill, Jr.

  1. nice account of the screening

    Steamboat Bill, Jr. was my favorite Keaton film for many years (until I discovered Go West). If I remember correctly, it was only the second of Buster’s movies that I’d watched, after Our Hospitality. And, although I was impressed with all of OH, my appreciation of Buster’s style (his deadpan demeanor, his athletic stuntwork) was solidly set by SBJ.

    I also enjoyed Keaton’s main costars. Ernest Torrence was great as Willie’s father; I remember being excited when I recognized Torrence in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And Marion Byron is my favorite of Buster’s leading ladies (after Go West’s Brown Eyes :) ).

    What I’m also interested in is what you thought of Our Gang follies of 1938. I can’t believe you’d never seen a Little Rascals film!


    • Thank you! I also got the same impression when I first watched this film, especially in regards to his stunt work. As for Keaton’s co-stars, Torrence is a delight to watch, and Byron is too adorable for words!

      Oh, I know! So many movies to see, so little time… My memory of the film is a bit fuzzy, which is why I didn’t elaborate my sentiments on it, but I thought they were all rather endearing.

      Liked by 1 person

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