Monday, September 10


Steamboat Buster

This coming Wednesday, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, one of the very best venues on Frisco Bay to view silent films with live musical accompaniment, will screen a pair of Buster Keaton features with Christian Elliot performing at the Wurlitzer organ: Steamboat Bill, Jr. and the Navigator. Though it was filmed partially in this city, and is reputedly among his most crowd-pleasing films, I've never seen the Navigator. I've been saving it for just such an opportunity to be pleased by it among an appreciative crowd in a theatre like the Stanford.

Steamboat Bill Jr. I have seen, on video years ago as I was first acquainting myself with Keaton's work. I count it among my favorites and am really looking forward to finally seeing it in 35mm. In the meantime, I thought I'd contribute to Thom Ryan's current Slapstick Blog-A-Thon by taking a closer look at one particular gag from the film, one of the most renowned gags Keaton (or anyone) ever performed. Though calling it a gag may be inaccurate, as it's really more nerve-wracking than funny. In fact, Lincoln Spector says it's "probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star." If you've seen Steamboat Bill, Jr. before, you already know what gag/stunt I'm talking about. If you haven't, and you want to remain oblivious to one of the film's most breathtaking surprises, you'd better not continue reading this entry.

The concept of Steamboat Bill, Jr. was generated by frequent Charlie Chaplin collaborator Charles Reisner, who then co-directed the film with Keaton. Reisner is in fact the only director in the film's credits, as Keaton often relinquished official credit for the films he directed. This was the final film he made with the independence accorded during his longtime professional relationship with his brother-in-law and producer Joseph Schenck, before signing up with MGM in a move that many claim led to Keaton's artistic and creative downfall. As Sherlock, Jr. had taken its title from the fictional detective Keaton's character wanted to emulate, so too was Steamboat Bill, Jr. named for a character best known from a popular song. I'm not going to recount the film's plot. For my current purposes, it's merely important to know that at one point in the film Keaton's character Willie finds himself in bed, with the walls and roof over his head torn off and blown away by a cyclone. The winds carry his four-legged craft down the street, in an image somewhat reminiscent of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend or another Winsor McCay fantasy.

Soon the bed has been pushed in front of a large wooden house. Keaton has, as is his wont in any weather, fallen. This time, out of the bed and onto his head. The front wall of the house has been separated from the rest of the building, revealing a gaping crack and a terrified man on the top floor of the house. This bearded fellow jumps out of an open window, his fall softened by the bed sitting in the street below, and the would-be steamboat captain underneath it. The man runs away, and the bed is picked up by the wind and follows. No sooner has a rather battered and dazed Willie slowly stood up and staggered forward a few steps, than all two tons of the house's façade has crashed down all around him, the actor only saved from being crushed because of the open window he was perfectly placed underneath. The stunt, more than anything else he ever shot, emphasizes that aspect of the Buster Keaton screen persona which depends on an unwitting collaboration with fate or the forces of nature for his survival. And though Keaton-as-Willie survives through dumb luck, Keaton-as-actor's luck was not dumb; he knew what he was getting into. He had practiced a far less dangerous version of the gag using lighter walls in previous films Back Stage and One Week. He confidently, meticulously planned out the mechanics of the falling wall, giving himself only a few inches of clearance. Had there been the slightest glitch in the execution, Keaton would have been "Steamrolled Bill," and he knew it.

I heard about this sequence before I saw it. The way I was told, Keaton, who joked about suicide relatively frequently in his films (in Hard Luck and Daydreams, for example), was suicidal on the day of the stunt's filming. Several sources claim that just the day before, Keaton had been unexpectedly informed by Schenck that this would be their last film together. While crew members looked away, and even Reisner abandoned the set to pray in his tent, Keaton felt so despondent about his uncertain professional future that he was perfectly willing to risk, or perhaps even court, death. I haven't done the research to be sure if this version of events is the true one; it holds a ring of plausibility, but it may also be making more of a late-in-life quote from Keaton, "I was mad at the time, or I would never have done the thing," than was intended.

Whether or not the real turmoil inside Keaton during this stunt outmatched the simulated turmoil of the cyclone created by Keaton's production team, the result was iconic. Robert Knopf writes:
By showing the wall fall in one shot, Keaton emphasized his own performance: his ability to calculate and execute this stunt as well as his bravery (some would say his foolishness) in performing it himself.
The face-on, unbroken long-shot view is somehow reminiscent of the theatre, or at least it is until the moment of collapse. But again, "unbroken" may be a somewhat inaccurate descriptor. Though the camera holds its view of the entire house from before the moment its façade begins to tumble, until after it has landed, the impact of the shot is augmented by the shots preceding it. Though my research has been far from exhaustive, I have yet to find an analysis of this stunt that discusses the shots directly leading up to the death-defying one. Let me try a little, with screencaps.

Six shots prior, in the final profile view that puts the cracking façade and Buster in the same frame, we can clearly see the distance between the wall and the actor's position on the street. (He's under the bed.)

The next five shots do not contradict this geography, and the last of these is a full shot that ends with Keaton taking a few steps forward and away from the house. He still doesn't seem far enough from the building to escape being flattened should it fall.

But the next edit is a deceptive one. It's difficult to perceive this, even when analyzing the shots on DVD, but in the iconic wall-tumbling shot, Keaton is standing further from the house than he was just prior to the cut. He must be, or else he would be crushed.

I strongly suspect that even if we aren't anticipating the collapse, we on perhaps a less-than-conscious level assimilate this spatial discrepancy, and factor it into our horrified reaction of seeing the façade begin to come down, and our commensurate relief when our hero is spared by the open window. It makes the effect all the more impressive, and it exploits a dimension of the motion picture medium that, apart from certain observations by Rudolf Arnheim in his seminal Film as Art, I do not often encounter when reading film criticism: the control a filmmaker has over the perception of relative distances between objects in the frame, due to the nature of transposing three-dimensional space onto a flat surface.

A thrilling stunt like this one remains exciting to watch again and again. I'm not so sure a modern-day computer-generated effect can have the same kind of staying power, but that's a subject for another post sometime. It's no coincidence that successful silent-era comedians specialized in them. Chaplin would upon occasion perform a dangerous stunt, perhaps most memorably the Circus's high-wire scene in which he is beset by capuchin monkeys. And if there's any stunt sequence more breathtaking and iconic than Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. heart-stopper, it's surely Harold Lloyd climbing a department store and dangling from a giant clock in Safety Last (which, Frisco Bay audiences take note, is opening a week-long classic film series at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on September 28th.)

But here's a legitimate question about some of these stunts that provoke more gasps than laughter: is it slapstick? Is it perhaps beyond slapstick? Our host of this Blog-a-Thon has proposed that the key to slapstick is that, though violence may be "unexpected, socially unacceptable [and] exaggerated for effect" it must be "staged so that we know that no one has sustained permanent injury." How does it work in gag situations in which there is threat of violence, but the violence is averted? Is slapstick funny because of schadenfreude? If so, are gags in which the victim escapes injury or humiliation as funny as those where he or she apparently (thanks to the illusion of film) doesn't?

What do you think?

Thank you Brian. Your contribution to the blog-a-thon this morning is a welcome surprise.

A few things I must praise here. First of all, I like the unexpected, but insightful connection you draw between Keaton's sailing bunk and the flying bed in the Porter's Dream of a Rarebit Fiend; a bed is a common thing that we associate with security and comfort and it's suddenly transformed into something dangerous and out of the protagonists' control in both of these films—funny. Second, thanks for using the screen caps to help us imagine your ideas about Keaton's hair-raising stunt (btw, his shadow seems to have moved in the second shot as well which might indicate his new distance from the wall). Third, I'm a fan of posts that raise new questions and engage us as readers as yours does here.

You ask if a stunt that causes us to imagine the potential of violence is as funny as straight slapstick (let's use Beckles terminology and call it a kick in the butt). I find it hard to qualify one gag as necessarily funnier than another, but let's look at how this film uses a stunt for laughs:

Lloyd's stunt uses trickery, presented in an open and direct manner (which must have something to do with the fact that, as you write, it's more impressive and has a longer-lasting effect on us than CGI), to accomplish the impossible or the near impossible. He seems to be teetering over the city about to fall if he loses his grip. The stunt uses the threat of violence instead of the actual kick in the butt variety of straight slapstick gags, but it's still funny because we ultimately see Lloyd escape potential injury. I mean, imagine the opposite: Safety Last ending with Lloyd still struggling, hanging from the clock as the screen dips to black and credits roll; he'd be suffering forever in our imaginations. Or he falls and the films ends with him lying there bloody and broken. That might be sick humor or black-humor or whatever that brand of comedy is termed, but I don't think it would qualify as slapstick. As it is, the stunt is funny because it relies on conventions of trickery, suspense, and surprise. I think it qualifies as a kind of slapstick (I'm thinking that there used to be a vaudeville term for a gag that does not hurt...but I can't recall it...anybody?), but not straight slapstick.

You know, this might be one area where our favorite Warner Bros cartoons (I know you're a big fan, Bri) can take gags farther than greats like Lloyd, Keaton, etc. Because animated characters can combine such stunts of trickery and surprise with a straight slapstick gag. They can show only temporary harm resulting from a fatal stunt like Lloyd's and then instantly transform the character back into its original, unharmed form, often to try the stunt all over again. And we chuckle ourselves silly the whole time, don't we?

Great job, Brian.
Hey Brian,

The only thing I can remember of Buster Keaton's films is the house falling down around him! Your exploration of this topic has really inspired me to see this work again.

I really love how you question the definition of slapstick. A scene such as the one from Steamboat Bill, Jr. involves so many emotions - suspense, surprise, & amazement, but I would add relief to the list as well. :)

I think that you may be questioning the nature of humor . . .
Thanks, Thom and Jen. This was a fun piece to write, but it's further gratifying to know that others are enjoying it as well.

Jen, I think you're right that I'm questioning the nature of humor, if subtly. I think I vainly hope to come closer to answers, as humor is something I still find mysterious. Even simply in my personal life, jokes that make one friend laugh might do nothing for another. Yet somehow slapstick seems more universal, and I have trouble figuring out why that is.

Thom, your comments on Harold on the clock are very helpful, I think. By now I'm familiar enough with these stunts that I'm sure I'm not experiencing them the same way any longer. I'm excited to observe the audience's reaction to the falling wall gag on Wednesday, after which I'll try to report back in this space.
Brian: I like your analysis of the house scene. A side benefit for me of "Steamboat Bill, Jr" is found in the riverboat scenes shot along the Sacramento.

Joe Thompson ;0)
That moment for me is always more breathtaking than funny. I find that there is that element to Keaton's work where he's really just trying to push himself physically and give you a sense of awe and surprise.

The Knopf reference pleases me. It's been a while since I read it, but I like his analysis overall.
Thanks for the comments. I really enjoyed your excellent contributions to the 'Thon. AR, your piece on the Keaton shorts made me want to see the Boat and Cops again soon, as it's been far too long since my last viewing. And Joe, your three contributions got my imagination flowing about that bygone era of slapstick on stage. I hadn't known about the Chronicling America project, which seems like a great resource to explore.

I thought about adding a mention of the Sacramento River location for the Steamboat Bill, Jr. shoot, but I couldn't find a plae for it to fit (which hasn't always stopped me before, but...) I see you're in nearby Pacifica. Do you make it to silent film screenings around here much yourself?

And Thom, I forgot to mention two things: one, I'm glad you brought up the shadow, as it's got to be the more revealing "tell" in the illusion. Two, I'm really glad you decided to put this weekend together! It's great reading and reference, and I've discovered several terrific blogs I was previously unaware of.
Brian: I'm glad you enjoyed my posts. Turn me loose with a bunch of old newspapers and I'm happy for hours.

As to your question, what with family, mortgage, and job, I don't get out to silent screenings anymore. In fact, I don't get to see much of anything in the theaters unless it is a Disney/Pixar production. I've started to explore your blog and I'm enjoying it very much -- it will go on my list of favorites, along with many others from the blog-a-thon.

I was fortunate to be around in the 1970s when the Avenue Theater on San Bruno Avenue showed silents every Friday night, accompanied live on the Wurlitzer, usually by Bob Vaughn.

One of these years I'm going to make it to a festival in Niles.

Joe Thompson ;0)
Joe, I was around back then, but too young to know what silent films even were, I think. If I ever went to the Avenue Theatre, I'm sure it must not have been on a Friday night. I certainly don't remember the venue (which was not exactly near my neighborhood). But on your prompting, I had some fun poking around the theatre's page at the great Cinema Treasures site.
The Keaton double-bill was a blast! Nobody laughed (loud enough for me to hear) at the wall collapse. But at least person let out a spontaneous "wow!"

Chris Elliot was about to mention the famous moment during his introduction, but some guy (not me)
shouted out "don't tell them!" and he nodded and complied with the request.

His score for STEAMBOAT BILL JR. was tremendous, especially during the cyclone, and his score the THE NAVIGATOR was very good too. During a couple moments I wondered how some of those images with just the two of them alone on that giant
ship (about as eerie as physical comedy gets) with spookier accompaniment. Perhaps too reminiscent of Scooby-Doo.

I can see why THE NAVIGATOR was Keaton's biggest hit as an independent. There's not much more fun than laughing at the foibles of the pampered, impractical rich, is
there? I might have imagined it, but I got the feeling the audience approval was a little more
restrained in the last reel or so of THE NAVIGATOR, when the cannibals are introducted. People were still cheering for Buster's heroic triumphs, but the cheers didn't seem as loud or sustained. I could easily have been projecting my own feelings though. I don't hold it against the filmmakers when I see them perpetuating cartoonish stereotypes as villains, but I often have trouble letting myself just enjoy the gags, even when they're really clever and well-executed.
Brian - thanks for a first-hand account of a modern audience's reaction to a couple of slapstick films from the past. I was worried that you might forget since the blog-a-thon is over, but I should've known better. Looks like the falling wall stunt in Steamboat Bill Jr. still works (as a suprise gag), at least to some degree.
I was present at a screening of MY WIFE'S RELATIONS where a truly beautiful group gasp accompanied the waterfall rescue.

Of course, my favorite reaction to a gag of Keaton's is one Brian has heard me speak of before. In the wonderful ONE WEEK there is the gag where Keaton goes through a door which has been installed where a second floor window should have been. He cannonballs to the ground spectacularly.

"He didn't know!" said my friend's 4-year old with genuinely delighted surprise.

Back to the wall. Lloyd Schwartz made a good point about variable film speed and this particular gag. If the film is projected too fast, the facade seems like balsa wood and some of the edge is lost.
Another reason to thank the current silent film exhibition scene. No more of that wrong-speed projection around here! (at least, I've never been subject to it)
Of course the film of which I posted was OUR HOSPITALITY. It co-starred Keaton's wife, Natalie "Nate" Talmadge, but was not, in fact, called MY WIFE'S RELATIONS.
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