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  Directed by
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  Specs
  • Full Frame
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital Mono
  Subtitles
  • None
  Extras
  • 1 Featurette - Short feature film, 'The Boat'
  • Animated menus
Steamboat Bill Jr
Force Entertainment/Force Entertainment . R4 . B&W . 70 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

The inspiration for the animated short film Steamboat Willie, which represented the debut of Walt Disneyís most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, Buster Keatonís 1928 classic Steamboat Bill Jr. proved to be the last of his nine independent feature films for producer Joseph Schenck. This comedic masterpiece, often acknowledged as perhaps his funniest, would also be one of Keatonís final silent features and was followed, in quick succession, by MGMís The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929).

Although The General (1927) is still regarded as his greatest artistic achievement, Steamboat Bill Jr. is slowly gaining an equitable reputation and, in some quarters, is considered to be a far more accomplished film. Legendary for his impeccable comic timing, astounding natural agility, and his ingenious stunts, which he almost always performed himself, Keatonís penchant for his dangerous antics reached new heights with the pictureís creative and inspired finale: the destructive cyclone sequence.

Indeed, Steamboat Bill Jr. is the film which nearly cost Keaton his life, for it contains the most infamous stunt in cinematic history, that of him standing before the front of a weakened three-story building as its two-ton facade collapses and falls onto him; however, he is spared from death as an open window happens to pass over him on the very spot he is standing. It is rumoured that Keaton had a precise mark on which to stand, that left no room for error. If his designated spot was placed incorrectly or if the structure itself did not fall as intended, Keaton would have been crushed.

In accordance with his moniker, the Great Stone Face, Keatonís countenance is one of extreme nonchalance. It is this complete indifference to insurmountable adversity which render his characters so endearing; the humour and situations in Keatonís films are universal and transcend the barriers of time, making them as popular now as what they were then. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that martial arts legend Jackie Chan, another screen idol noted for his agility and superb comic talent, is a devout Keaton fan.

Steamboat Bill is William Canfield (Ernest Torrence), the cantankerous proprietor of the decrepit Mississippi river boat steamer "Stonewall Jackson", whose prosperous business is threatened with the arrival of another paddle steamer, the King, owned and operated by the entrepreneur J. J. King (Tom McGuire). Disgruntled with the effeminate and refined appearance of his son, William Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton), who has recently returned from a Boston college, Canfield Sr. enlists him to work on the "Stonewall Jackson".

However, matters soon become complicated when Canfield Sr. realises that his sonís friend and the object of his infatuation, Mary (Marion Byron), is actually Kingís daughter. The rivalries between both King and Canfield Sr. reach their peak as the "Stonewall Jackson" is condemned by the Public Safety Committee; left in no doubt as to who instigated the warrant, an infuriated Canfield Sr. confronts the odious King and succeeds in becoming involved in a street brawl. Indicted with civil disruption, Canfield is placed into the sheriffís custody.

An intense cyclone bears down on the small town of River Junction, and proceeds to devastate most of it, presenting Canfield Jr. the perfect opportunity in which to mend the discord between himself and his father, defuse the tension of corporate rivalry, and secure Maryís charms. The storm sequence, featured for one-third of the filmís length, contains some of the most astonishing acrobatic feats and stunts in motion picture history, which are all the more wondrous when it is realised that they are achieved without the use of stunt doubles.

  Video
  Audio
  Extras
Contract

Steamboat Bill Jr. is presented in a screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is, therefore, not anamorphic.

Black levels are solid and consistent, as are, too, brightness and contrast levels; of course, there are brief moments where they seem to fluctuate, however, for the most part, they remain surprisingly stable. The clarity and detail for a film of this vintage is excellent. Details themselves are sharp and, in some instances, crisp, providing beautiful definition; shadow detail is quite good, and better than was expected. As Steamboat Bill Jr. is filmed in black-and-white, there are no issues relating to colour-bleeding or oversaturation.

There are no evident MPEG artefacts and, while there is an abundance of film artefacts, consisting of nicks, scratches and dirt, their presence seems more subdued than with other films of this vintage. Indeed, due to the fact that the original source material was subjected to restoration in 1991, the filmís print succeeds in belying its age quite admirably. Minor aliasing is present in a few rare occasions, most notably at 7 minutes and 38 minutes, involving a train station buildingís roof; despite lasting just over a minute, it is not disruptive to the viewing experience.

There is only one audio selection available, that of the Dolby Digital 2.0 sound track. Of course, since this film was produced during the silent era, there are no dialogue and sound issues associated with this release. Steamboat Bill Jr.ís uncredited accompanying soundtrack exhibits great clarity and is featured in the centre speaker. Possessing a Saturday-movie matinee feel, the film score's comical and playful nature wonderfully compliments Keatonís riotous celluloid antics to a perfect pitch. There are no discernible drops in sound level or audio quality.

Although there is only one extra, it is a worthy addition to this disc: the 1921 featurette, The Boat. Focusing on the misadventures of his homemade boat "Damifano" - which, in itself, is a delightful play on words and constitutes one the greatest punchlines in comedic cinema - this short film, running for approximately 27 minutes, ranks as one of Keatonís best. However, while the overall quality of this featurette is quite acceptable, the film is marred, in places, by severe deterioration.

Although Steamboat Bill Jr. is credited as being directed by Charles F. Reisner, it is highly improbable that Reisner even co-directed the film with Keaton; nonetheless, Keaton often collaborated with Eddie Cline on numerous featurettes. In actuality, Keaton directed all of his own feature films until 1929ís Spite Marriage and the advent of sound. While not as ambitious as his epic The General, Keatonís Steamboat Bill Jr. is still a wonderfully crafted and light-hearted affair, which, in context of its story at least, is somewhat predictable, but is all the more richer for it.

For anyone interested in silent cinema or dynamic, sophisticated slap-stick, Steamboat Bill Jr. is a worthy purchase. For Keaton fans, though, it is a necessity and an essential addition to their DVD collection.


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  •   And I quote...
    "Yet another undisputed classic featuring the inspired lunacy and comic genius of Buster Keaton... Simply brilliant... "
    - Shaun Bennett
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    • DVD Player:
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          Panasonic TX-43P15 109cm Rear Projection
    • Audio Cables:
          Standard Optical
    • Video Cables:
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