In a way, Buster Keaton’s fall—the big, metaphorical one, the first in his life he couldn’t bounce right back from—began when that housefront collapsed over him in Steamboat Bill, Jr. In what is now his most famous stunt, Buster remains unharmed, framed in an open attic window just wide enough to clear his body by two inches on each side. Today this is probably the best remembered of Keaton’s grand-scale set pieces, included in countless classic film montages and circulated online as a mesmerizing repeating gif.
The stunt is infinitely rewatchable, worth slowing down to advance frame by frame. You can choose to focus on Keaton’s uncanny stillness as the weight of the wall rushes toward him and the neat timing of his delayed reaction as he rubs the back of his neck in confusion, processes his changed circumstances, then takes off at a run with a distrustful glance backward at the pile of wrecked lumber. Or you can try to spot the ropes, barely visible in the exposed cross section of house, that held the two-ton façade upright until the moment the camera rolled. Three men from the crew had been crouched on the roof out of sight, ready to cut the ropes whenever Buster’s codirector, Charles Reisner, called action. The whole construction was rigged by Keaton’s longtime production designer, the ingenious Fred “Gabe” Gabourie, and it remains a mechanical marvel even now. Keaton later recalled the tense atmosphere on set that day: “Cameramen, electricians and extras prayed as we shot that scene, and I don’t mind saying I did a little praying myself.”
This shot is the culmination of a long-developing gag that began with a flimsy piece of stage scenery in the 1919 Arbuckle-Keaton short Back Stage and mutated into the revolving hinged wall in One Week (1920) that lifts leading lady Sybil Seely up in the air while framing Buster in a window opening below. It is the window gag’s logical end point, with suspense and the potential for mortal danger added on to the goofy prop comedy of the original joke. In that sense, it is the most quintessential of Keaton gags. Since his childhood stardom in vaudeville, Buster had been getting this kind of double mileage out of his most daredevil stunts: he could risk his life and make it funny.
But the day the real-life wall fell, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend of 1927, must have felt to Buster not like a delivery from doom but the experience of being delivered up to it. The housefront, happily, failed to crush him, but something else just had. The day before the scene was to be filmed, Keaton’s producer and brother-in-law Joe Schenck had informed him that the Buster Keaton Studio, along with the rest of Schenck’s production companies, was about to be shut down. Steamboat Bill, Jr. would be Keaton’s last independently produced film.
The consolidation of American film production into the “Big Five” studios of Golden Age Hollywood—MGM, 20th Century-Fox, Warner Bros., RKO Radio Pictures, Paramount—was essentially a done deal by late 1927, even if not all those companies had yet assumed their final form under those names. Joe Schenck had held on to the old independent model far longer than most producers of his ilk. Hollywood movies were a big enough business by then to require economies of scale: not a handful of multipurpose crew members building sets on a studio lot the size of one square block, but vast production complexes that were like miniature cities, staffed with departments of specialists who rotated from film to film: costumers, scriptwriters, electricians, carpenters, animal trainers.
Keaton had never had a head for business, but even he must have recognized well before his and Schenck’s Labor Day weekend talk that the film industry was changing. The disappointing reception of The General (1926) and the middling performance of College (1927) had been on both his and Schenck’s minds over the past year. And though the release of The Jazz Singer would not kick the sound revolution into high gear until that October, everyone in Hollywood was already well aware that talking pictures were the coming thing.
All of this to say that by the summer of 1927, as Keaton and Gabourie were devising the collapsing housefront and the rest of the falling, flying, floating, and sinking sets that swirl through the dreamlike finale of Steamboat Bill, Jr., the writing was on the wall for the end of silent pictures. Yet no one could have predicted how quickly and violently the industry that had produced them would transform, or how soon that change would be followed by the disaster of the Great Depression. In any case, Keaton had never been one for keeping up with the writing on Hollywood walls. He hadn’t needed to. For ten years, with Schenck’s protection, he had been working at a remove from the increasingly rigid laws of the movie marketplace. Schenck’s initially hands-off approach allowed Keaton the freedom to try ambitious experiments that might or might not earn back their negative cost.
But as of that Labor Day weekend, Keaton could no longer ignore the fact that his time as an independent filmmaker with a quasi-fraternal patron was over. He continued for several more years as a rich and famous movie star; in fact, he was about to be handed the most lucrative job he had ever had when, at Schenck’s urging, he signed a contract to become a star player at MGM. But never again in his life would he enjoy the freedom to conceive, shoot, edit, and star in a production like Steamboat Bill, Jr., built from the ground up with a handpicked crew of trusted collaborators. The trajectory his career had followed from early childhood to early middle age, that smooth and steady upward arc, had hit its peak and was about to start a steep, perilous drop.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. may be Keaton’s most mature film, a fitting if too early farewell to the era of creative independence he had just lived through. Its relationship to the rest of its creator’s work has been compared to that of Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest. Keaton was only thirty-two at the time of Steamboat Bill’s release, and he still had many films left to make (albeit only two more, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, that could be said to be, for the most part, his). Appropriately enough, his last independent production has a reflective, autumnal mood that sets it apart from mid-1920s masterworks like The Navigator and The General. Even if it had not turned out to be his last independent feature, Steamboat Bill, Jr. might have marked the end of a certain arc in his career. It revisits images and themes that had been central to his life since long before he started in film: the antagonistic relationship between a father and son, the seductive illusions of stagecraft, and the instability of “home.”
Steamboat Bill, Jr. may resemble other Keaton movies in its setting—like Our Hospitality and The General, it takes place in a romanticized version of the South, and like The Boat and The Navigator, it takes place mainly aboard a boat—but the psychological space it explores has more to do with the old onstage rivalry between Buster and his father Joe Keaton, the driving conflict of their long-ago knockabout act in vaudeville. But by 1927, eleven years after the breakup of the Three Keatons, the son’s motivation is no longer the antiauthoritarian mischief of a clever boy. Willie Canfield—the second protagonist of a Keaton film to be designated a “junior,” after the would-be detective hero of Sherlock, Jr. in 1924—wants to earn his father’s good opinion and ultimately his love. If I see Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a pinnacle of Keaton’s art, perhaps the greatest in the string of brilliant feature films he produced between 1923 and 1928, it is because I sense in the final reconciliation between Willie and his father (the magnificent Ernest Torrence) something like a reckoning between the younger Buster and his own overbearing and often difficult dad. This seems to me as frank an autobiographical moment of wish fulfillment as Keaton ever put in a movie, and whether intended or not, there is symbolic power in the fact it turned out to be the last movie that was fully his own.
Adapted from her book Cameraman: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra