First impressions count, and William Canfield is about to be disappointed. Beset by the empire-building intentions of a rival Mississippi paddle steamer boss, Canfield – known as Steamboat Bill – receives a telegram telling of the impending arrival of his son, Willie (Buster Keaton).
It will be the first time Canfield has seen his offspring since Willie was a baby. He expects a hulking brute, “bigger’n me!” – and that would be some size. He dreams of a physically robust, two-fisted ally to take some of the weight of his against-the-odds battle with JJ King.
What he gets though is a college fop, a “shrimp”, with a “barnacle” of a moustache on his lip and a very un-robust beret on his head. More ham-fisted than two-fisted. For the classically crestfallen Canfield, there is much work to be done. First stop – the barber, and the barnacle is gone. Second stop, the hat shop.
In a routine brilliantly, affectingly and subtly played by Ernest Torrance as Steamboat Bill and Keaton as Willie, a series of lids are placed on the youngster’s head, all eliciting very different reactions from both father and son.
One porkpie hat – very much Keaton’s trademark – is quickly removed by Willie before it can even be considered. The final choice, a wide-brimmed, high-crowned Panama-type number, is immediately swept away by a gust of wind outside the shop. The beret, recently discarded in Willie’s pocket, is once again returned to his head, much to the consternation of poor Father.
The wind will play a greater part as Steamboat Bill, Jr. plays out its disaster movie finale – an orgy of destruction as a storm hits River Junction – that includes Keaton’s most famous and frightening stunt; the facade of a house falling on top of him, his life preserved by the gap of a window frame fitting neatly over his shoulders.
Yet it is not Mother Nature that removes Willie’s beret, just as Father Nurture failed to eradicate it.
Rather it’s his beloved Kitty (Marion Byron) who helps kit him out in “clothes for the boat” – not the working duds crusty old Canfield expects but a naval officer’s uniform that would be at home on a vessel far more imposing than the old Stonewall Jackson. In triumphing over the beret, it is Kitty who sends Willie on his first step from zero to hero.
Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) was the last of his self-controlled slapstick pictures, following the likes of Sherlock Jr and The General, made independently before he signed up with MGM and gave away much of his ideas-rich filmmaking autonomy.
The story goes that the Great Stone Face was suffering from a certain depression at the time of filming Steamboat, and Keaton himself later said of the house-falling stunt: “I was mad at the time or I would never have done the thing.”
That kind of ‘madness’ may be lost in the mists of movie time, but first impressions count – and the world will always remember Keaton and the legacy of his silent masterworks.