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DVD Review: STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
Ultimate 2-Disc Edition



Studio: Kino International
Year: 1928
Cast: Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence
Director: Charles F. Reisner
Release Date: July 06, 2010
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 01h:10m:24s
Genre(s): silent, comedy

STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.

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Two swell cuts of one of Buster Keaton's greatest.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: B+

I don't know if it's possible that Buster Keaton is truly unappreciated, but we really cannot celebrate his work enough. And even though it's very strange to see silent pictures on DVD and now Blu-ray—these are no longer authentic artifacts or accurate reproductions of what these movies looked like back in the day, but who cares?—these releases provide a convenient excuse to spend some time with the work of one of the masters. There's a Fred Astaire-like quality to a lot of Keaton's work—because he labored so hard to make it look effortless, one can be deceived into thinking that he's not really trying very hard. One would be mistaken. Keaton and company wring the comic possibility out of every last scrap of their material, perform stunts that would be unthinkable for a leading man of today, and tell a swell little story in just over 70 minutes. How you like them apples?

Choosing between Keaton movies can be like asking a parent to choose between his or her children; still, I'd put Sherlock Jr. at the top of my list, both for its comic invention and its almost Surrealist sense of possibility. Keaton was already a huge star when Steamboat Bill Jr. came out, and you can sense, a little bit, that he's trying to live up to his carefully tailored screen persona; also, there's no doubting that he's starting to hear the footsteps of talking pictures, and doesn't want to go all Norma Desmond on us and become an irrelevancy.

From a dramaturgical standpoint, what's so great about Keaton is that his movies are so well constructed; they're not merely a string of gags, but on paper, read like melodramas of the period, or of the late 19th century. Here he plays the title character, a dandy reunited after college graduation with the old man—Pops is an old salt of a sailor with a rundown ship, devastated to find that his son is a bit of a nancy boy. The senior Bill and his vessel have a great rival: the King line is spiffy and modern, and the patriarch has a pretty young daughter who (wouldn't you know) is a friend of young Bill's from Back East, where all the evils of civilization come from.

Buster is of course allowed to save the day and get the girl—one doesn't look to Buster Keaton films for suspenseful plots—but what's so marvelous about the movie is its sheer sense of scale. Keaton is ruthlessly efficient, and extraordinarily brave; the signature shot of the movie—Buster in a storm, as the front of a house falls down, with him emerging safely through a window opening—is both hilarious and more than a little scary, when you start to think about the consequences of the shot being just a little bit off. This two-disc set offers a doppelganger cut of sorts: Disc One holds what's called the Buster Keaton Estate Version of the film, and Disc Two, the Killiam Shows Archive Version. They're shot for shot, scene for scene, the same movie, with alternate takes used for each, so there are modest little differences. (One apparently was used to strike prints for the U.S. release, the other to do so overseas.) So it's kind of like going to see the same play two nights in succession—it's the same thing, but with the inevitable small variances that come with any human endeavor.

Disc One also holds some brief but informative supplementary material, principally in a visual essay (12m:18s) that leans heavily on Silent Echoes, John Bengtson's indispensable look at where Keaton shot his movies. (This one was filmed in and around Sacramento.) There are also details on the two versions, and some career and biographical details on Keaton. A photo gallery features stills from the set and some original release posters; we also get two renditions of the Tin Pan Alley song that inspired the film, and a montage entitled Why They Call Him Buster, a one-minute montage of pratfalls. Also, though it's a silent movie, no shortage of audio options: an original score by Lee Erwin, and another by the Biograph Players, in both 2.0 and 5.1.

Posted by: Jon Danziger - August 30, 2010, 7:57 am - DVD Review
Keywords: buster keaton, silent, comedy




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