Bill, Jr. (1928)
Most of the routines included in the film are similar to those that can be found in children's cartoons, such as the various installments of the "Looney Toons" series, and should amuse the person who appreciates such works as much as do the animated programs themselves. Even though I cannot say that I laughed more than once or twice during the film's duration, I did generally enjoy Keaton's efforts. Admittedly, most if not all of his routines are predictable, but they can be tremendously fun to watch, nonetheless.
Over the course of the movie, Keaton treats the viewer to such a vast variety of slapstick skits that the movie rarely slows down for more than the briefest of moments. At one point, for example, he uses a board to cross from his father's steamboat to that of his rival and amuses the viewer by moving one of the vessels while keeping the board suspended in mid-air as though it were still resting on the boat. Elsewhere, his character tries to break his father out of jail by smuggling tools baked into a loaf of bread into the old sociopath's cell, and, in a third sequence, he shows how the irascible codger, having been informed he would be able to recognize his long unseen son by a carnation the latter would be wearing, is baffled while trying to find the young man at the train station when he discovers that every male passenger on his son's train is wearing a carnation. As enjoyable as these routines are, however, the sequences at the movie's conclusion, which revolve around the diverse catastrophes that befall the hero when a storm hits his town, are, perhaps, even better. At different points, Keaton is hurled through the air while clinging to an uprooted tree, rescues several persons from drowning in the Mississippi, escapes various collapsing buildings, and much more. In fact, the list of the protagonist's adventures goes on and on.
Admittedly, the story in which these skits are set is less than inspired. Actually, it is trite, trivial, and often dull, but, be that as it may, as it exists largely to provide excuses for Keaton's comic routines, its faults do not greatly detract from the movie's enjoyableness.
Like an episode of the Roadrunner and the Coyote, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is so energetic and so ridiculous that it is likely to entertain any viewer who is able to appreciate mindless fun. In fact, unless he has some foolish prejudice against silent film, any person who is willing to indulge in a little lowbrow humor will most likely find Steamboat Bill, Jr. to be a truly captivating movie. That said, any person who would deride the efforts of Benny Hill or Jackie Chan and yet proclaim Keaton's film to be a work of genius must either be deluding himself or be so blinded by received proclamations about some canon of cinematic classics that he is unable to make judgements for himself. As much as I like the movie, I will not claim that it ever evinces any particular sophistication or that that it has any substantial artistic merit.
Some persons, perhaps, may say that Keaton originated several of the skits he performed and should be given credit for doing so. I honestly do not know if such an assertion is true or not, but, if it is, I will happily admit that these persons have hit upon an historical fact. Nevertheless, I will not accept that any such fact affects a work's artistic worth. When determining the relative merit of different works of art, what matters is not which of the artists who created those works did something first, but which of them did it better. While such considerations do matter when looking at those works from an historical perspective, they are irrelevant to the person appreciating them for their own native qualities. In fact, it strikes me as absurd that I, or anyone else, should decide whether or not to enjoy a given work based on the date it was created relative to other works that contain similar elements. After all, I enjoy a given work of art because it is well realized, because I am able to appreciate its intrinsic value, not because of some year printed as a copyright date or cited in a reference book as that in which the work was composed. Happily, the comedic routines included in Steamboat Bill, Jr. are, by and large, genuinely entertaining and do deserve recognition as being so. They just are not any better than many similar routines performed in later films.
Time may make good wine better and change bad wine into vinegar, but it is has no effect on art. What was good yesterday is good today, and what was bad yesterday remains bad today. Sadly, nostalgia, obscurity, and changing tastes can trick people into thinking that a film made some time in the past is, simply because it was made in the past, either a classic or unwatchable rubbish. Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. has not been transformed by the passage of time from a fun, childish romp into either a masterpiece or a dull, monotonous bore. It is just what it was when it was made, a delightfully energetic lowbrow comedy that is well worth watching.
Review by Keith Allen
© 2005 email@example.com Keith Allen. All rights reserved.