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Steamboat Bill, Jr. (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

October 18, 2010 by  



Buster Keaton at his most daring!  Featuring death-defying scenes that literally will surprise you.  “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is another wonderful Keaton silent film on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino and is highly recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2010 Kino International Corp. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Steamboat Bill, Jr.

FILM RELEASE: 1928

DURATION: 70 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: B&W, 1080p High Definition,

COMPANY: Kino International

RATED: N/A

Release Date: July 6, 2010

Directed by Charles Reisner

Written by Carl Harbaugh

Produced by Joseph M. Schenck

Cinematography by Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings

Edited by Sherman Kell

Starring:

Buster Keaton as William Canfield, Jr.

Ernest Torrence as William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield Sr.

Tom Mcguire as John James King

Tom Lewis – Tom Carter, first mate

Marion Byron as Kitty King

The last of the independent features made in the prime of Buster Keaton’s career, STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. is a large-scale follow-up to The General, substituting a Mississippi paddlewheel for the locomotive, and replacing the spectacle of the Civil War with a catastrophic hurricane. Keaton stars as William Canfield, Jr., a Boston collegian who returns to his deep-southern roots to reunite with his father, a crusty riverboat captain (Ernest Torrence) who is engaged in a bitter rivalry with a riverboat king, coincidentally, the father of Willie’s sweetheart (Marion Byron).

Keaton’s athleticism and gift for inventive visual humor are in top form, and the cyclone that devastates a town (and sends houses literally crashing down around him) is perhaps the most ambitious, awe-inspiring and hilarious slapstick sequence ever created.

In the silent era, it was common practice for filmmakers to create two separate negatives of their films, each comprised of differing takes and camera angles. This definitive DVD edition contains both versions of STEAMBOAT BILL, JR., each mastered from archival 35mm materials, as well as a thirteen-minute documentary comparing the two.

When we think about Buster Keaton, we think of one of the kings of slapstick comedy during the silent era.  The master of physical comedy, a talent known for his deadpan expression and his films, well-revered today as one of the best actors and directors of all time and beloved by many.

But in 1928, Buster Keaton was going through one of the most problematic times of his life.  A marriage to Natalie Talmadge (of the popular Talmadge family and sister to actresses Norma and Constance) which was going south and to make things worse but two years prior, Keaton had learned that Joseph M. Schenk (the man in which Keaton was contracted to) would be taking the job as President of the new United Artists (created by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks).

And with Keaton now losing independence as a director/actor and becoming part of the new studio mentality, in the three year period, he would create three films which would be his final films he would have complete control over and that was “The General” (1926), “College” (1927) and his final film with United Artists, “Steamboat Bill, Jr” (1928).

Like “The General”, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is considered one of the best films that Keaton had created but in 1928, people didn’t feel the same way.  People were now getting read for the talkies (which was in its infancy) and slapstick comedy was phasing out and people were wanting something new and different.

Eventually like many silent era stars, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is considered as Keaton’s last great silent film and is now considered today as not just one of the top Keaton comedy films ever created but one of the top comedy silents of all time.

And we have had the opportunity to be have watched “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” on DVD courtesy of Kino International but now, it’s time for “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” on HD via Blu-ray and is the definitive version of the film as both the Buster Keaton Estate version and the Killiam Shows Archive version are both included in this release.

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” revolves around a young man named William Canfield, Jr.  (played by Buster Keaton) who just graduated from college and as promised, he will leaving Boston to visit his father William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield, Sr. (played by Ernest Torrence), a grumpy, and very traditional blue collar man who has been captain of the old ship Steamboat Bill.   But Sr. is not to thrilled that his rival John James King (played by Tom McGuire) has unveiled his new ship and will surely drive away business from Canfield Sr. and away from the Steamboat Bill.

Meanwhile, William Sr. receives a letter from Jr. that he has graduated and will be coming back to town.  Not sure what his own son looks like, William Sr. looks a bit surprised and embarrassed that his son is very refined, wearing a suit jacket, carrying a small guitar, wearing an artist’s hat and definitely much different than his old man.  And this is not what his father likes, so immediately he goes to change him.

But while he’s back in town, William Sr. wants to make sure that his son works and gets to learn how things run on the Steamboat Bill.  But first, Williams father will first make sure he gets out of his college getup and looks like he will be working on a boat.

While shopping with his father, William Jr. runs into Kitty (played by Marion Byron), a friend from the city and a young woman who is smitten towards him.  All things seem to look good in his way back home, that is until William Sr. finds out that Kitty is the daughter of his rival John James King.

Both Canfield Sr. and King make sure they let their children know that they should not be together but for both William and Kitty, they will do whatever it takes to see each other.  Or can they?

VIDEO:

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is quite literally the best looking version of the film available and for an 82-year-old film, Kino International has once again done a spectacular job on a silent film release on Blu-ray.

Before I discuss the picture quality of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, it’s important to note that because this is a silent film, it’s important to emphasize that each silent film has been handled and stored differently.  With that being said, I also want to add that there are only so many very good silent films still around, many destroyed from fires started by the Nitrate film or mishandling (or improper storage).  Fortunately, a good number of Keaton films have strong film elements that have led to Kino International wanting to release more Keaton films on Blu-ray and to also make sure the film has not been digitally tampered.

Similar to “The General”, Kino International has done a a great job with bringing this film to Blu-ray.  Presented in 1080p High Definition, black and white, yes, the film is not pristine (no silent film in HD will be) looking as it does have scratches, dust, hair and other damage that the film has gone through within the last 80-years.  But this is to be expected, if anything, many silent films on nitrate were not well taken care of, so each time I see a film in which the films are much better than I expect, I’m quite pleased and for “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” in HD, it’s definitely a major improvement over its original DVD counterpart.

I have watched many silent films that have had considerable nitrate damage but this film still looks fantastic for its age and you will not see the nitrate damage or acid buildup in the film’s sides.  Yes, it’s not pristine but it’s the best looking version of the film that I have seen so far. There is a good amount of detail where you can actually see detail on the ground, on the wood of the Steamboat bill ship, the curvatures and bark on a tree.  It’s important to note that some elements of the film do show its change in black levels but by no means was this distracting for me.  I know of one review that said that contrast was blinding and I think that comment was a bit excessive.  There are changing levels but by no means was it blinding or over-contrast.  I found the black levels and contrast more distracting on the DVD but I believe that KINO did a wonderful job in fixing it on the Blu-ray release (and I am assuming it was fixed also on the  ultimate collection 2-disc DVD that was released simultaneously on the same day as the Blu-ray).

The differences between the Buster Keaton Estate version and the Killiam Shows Archives version is quite interesting as the films show different takes.  Because the film were handled by different properties, the picture quality is slightly softer in the Killiam version but personally, both looks good and I’m very grateful that both films are included in this release.

Many have wondered if the film does have any DNR and Bret Wood posted on Nitrateville.com:

When we transferred THE GENERAL, we had the grain-reducer turned down to zero, assuming that would kill it. But when we QC’ed the Blu-Ray, we saw traces of digital artifacts. As a result, we re-transferred THE GENERAL for Blu-Ray, with the grain-reducer not just turned to zero, but completely by-passed (and we followed the same technique for STEAMBOAT BILL JR.).

By this time, the DVD of THE GENERAL had already been released, so it has a slight amount of digital noise reduction, but it’s virtually undetectable on a SD monitor.

But despite its having its share of dust and particles and other things that do show up in the video, comparing both this Blu-ray version to the DVD version in my Kino “Art of Buster Keaton” set, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” looks fantastic on Blu-ray!

On the DVD, there is constant flickering and there were times that blacks look quite deep and were hard to see faces at times.  Also, seeing how much cleaner the print looks on Blu-ray vs. the original KINO DVD is quite amazing.

Iknow some Blu-ray purists that have never seen a silent film can be alarmed that silent films are not clear and pristine but the fact is many of them aren’t but if we can get something as close to perfect, for an 82-year-old film, I’m quite impressed with the results!

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

With any release of silent films on Blu-ray, one thing that I have always wanted to see is more musical scores that people can select for their own viewing and personal preference.

For “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”, you get the The Biography Players music presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, an organ score by Lee Erwin and a piano score by William Perry.  Unfortunately, the music by Gaylord Carter presented on the original DVD is not included.

It’s important to note that the Buster Keaton Estate version comes with The Biography Players DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 score and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo version and the Lee Erwin mono organ score.  The Killiam Shows Archive version only features the William Perry Dolby Digital 2.0 piano score.

The Biography Players lossless score was well-done!  I enjoyed Gaylord Carter’s score from the original, so to hear another score, I was quite impressed of how the orchestra carried on various instruments during a scene’s most emotional or hair-raising moments.  It is important to note that the score is presented on all five audio channels.  But just in case, you don’t like that, you can always select a Dolby Digital 2.0 version of the score.

I also enjoyed the organ score by Lee Irwin (presented in Dolby Digital mono) and you get the Dolby Digital 2.0 piano score by William Perry.

There are no subtitles in this Blu-ray release.

SPECIAL FEATURES

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” comes with the following special features:

  • Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Killiam)– (1:10:29) The second version of the film which is similar to the Buster Keaton Estate version but the Killiam Shows Archive version does feature different cuts of scenes (such as the trying on a hat scene).  The Killiam Shows Archive version only features the William Perry Dolby Digital 2.0 piano score.
  • Visual Essay – (12:20) – A short documentary explaining Keaton’s mindset during the filming of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” and the challenges that Keaton faced at this time in his life.
  • Steamboat Bill: The Song – Early recordings of a folk song  that created the persona from which the film was derived.  Performed by Edward Meeker (1911, 2:10) and Irving Kaufman (1919, 2:48).
  • “Why The Call Him Buster” – (1:11) A musical montage of pratfalls and stunts created to promote the upcoming release of KINO’s “Lost Keaton”.
  • Stills – Using your remote, you can cycle through various stills from the film.

EXTRAS:

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.” comes with a slipcase.

As a big fan of Buster Keaton films, from his silents to his talkies, I do feel that Kino International has done a fantastic job with this Blu-ray release of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”.

While I really enjoyed “The General”, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is a film that I enjoyed even more.  I felt the physical comedy by Buster Keaton was fantastic!  The scenes when the hurricane hits the town literally  makes your jaw drop and makes you wonder how they created those scenes in 1928.  Hurricane-like winds, watching Keaton risk his life and putting his life into this crew’s hands as homes and buildings collapse all around him, houses falling on him and literally escaping harms way to seeing him on a tree and being carried away by the hurricane (of course, a crane whisking him away from land to ocean).  The fact is for this film, Keaton put his life in jeopardy and just the slightest miscalculation could have either killed him or maimed him.  Fortunately, Buster and his crew prepared quite well for those scenes.

Keaton including his third wife have said in past interviews that he didn’t care about doing those scenes because at the time, he was fighting off depression.  His marriage had failed (which would actually hurt him severely a few years later), his financial problems were mounting and the lifestyle that his wife had wanted was taking its toll (it’s important to note that in their bitter divorce, Natalie Talmadge literally took all his money and his children away from him and leaving him a broken man driven to alcoholism).

As much as I love the film, I can’t help but feel saddened that this incredible film was a box office failure and literally stripping away Buster Keaton’s control over his films.  But the fact is that Keaton was one of the casualties of the crossover from silent films to the talkies.  Without Joseph Schenk, without the support of his wife, without control over his films.  But he took the advice to close down his own studio from Schenk and to move to Columbia Pictures.  This slapstick comedy king had his whole role reduced when he went to MGM (which Buster would say was the worst decision he made all his life) but the truth was, whether he kept his studio or not, the movies would never be the same for these silent film stars.  And while Keaton would go on to make commercially successful films, the days of Keaton showcasing his physical comedy (which the studio would not allow and he had to work with a stunt double) was over.

So, in many ways, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” can be seen by many of us today, as his final silent film in which we got to see the actor at his most daring.  Exciting, captivating, and doing things that not even Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd would ever dare do.  But the attitudes towards cinema during those final silent years were not kind to these silent stars and for many people watching this film, its difficult to imagine how this film did terribly because it’s a fantastic film that you can’t help but respect Keaton for what he accomplished.

As for this Blu-ray release, once again, Kino has done silent film fans a big service.  Another wonderful Keaton film in HD and their continuing dedication of bringing silent films to the masses, especially to those who are now discovering silent films for the very first time.  The fact that you get both the Buster Keaton Estate version and the Killiam Shows Archive version is a major plus (same film but both have different takes and alternate scenes).  Also, I was quite pleased with the features presented in this release.

I will say that if you are planning to buy this release, you’re going to read different reviews about “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” on Blu-ray and you are going to see reviews that are positive and negative due to the way the video is presented.   I am on the side that feels the presentation of “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” was well-done and I know there will be those who will debate the black-levels and the contrast and so forth.  In my case, the contrast was not blinding but again, we all have different equipment.

But for the film alone, what was included on this Blu-ray release and its’ over all presentation, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” is a winner and is highly recommended!






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