In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton's college student William Canfield arrives to help out on his estranged father's rusty old paddleboat the Stonewall Jackson, a vessel so unworthy of the Mississippi River that - in a great early gag - even the lifesavers sink when knocked overboard. While trying to avoid the rivalry pa (Ernest Torrence) has stoked up with the neighbouring King dynasty - for whose heiress Kitty (Marion Byron) William has come to develop a soft spot - our naive hero receives a different kind of education: despite his campus-cultivated beret and 'tache - nice if flimsy signifiers of sophistication, soon tossed to the wind - he still needs to learn how to throw a punch, chew tobacco, get the girl and save the day. In 1928, Keaton had just come off the back of The General, his cleverest (if least outwardly amusing) feature, which means stunts (plank-walking, deck-hopping) tend to outnumber the gags here, although the storm-tossed finale, with its tumbling, flying, collapsing houses, is as impressive a spectacle as anything elsewhere in the Keaton filmography. The first half did much to float into cinematic circulation the comic possibilities of two warring clans, though it seems a long way from this to Deck the Halls and Cheaper by the Dozen 2.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. returns to selected cinemas (as part of a double-bill with 1921's The Playhouse) from today.