Last night I watched Buster Keaton’s landmark film Steamboat Bill, Jr., in which he plays the effete son of a rough riverboat captain meeting his father for the first time. Quite apart from the movie’s slapstick humor and cloned Romeo & Juliet plot, what really made me sit up and take notice were the amazing stunts and nonstop scene transformations Keaton goes through during the course of a supposed hurricane late in the picture.
The wind tears the fronts off buildings, sends trucks and cars careening down streets, and whisks the hospital clear off a surprised Keaton who is recovering from a blow to the head. Thereafter, he flings himself through a rapid-fire series of unrelated surrealistic situations: he steps onto the stage of a ruined and uprooted theater, gets sandbagged, and jumps at a scenic backdrop of a riverbank; standing in a doorway off the stage, Keaton jumps in fright when a ventriloquist’s dummy accidentally shifts its head and seems to look at him; in the wet street, he attempts to advance into the wind and is bent down almost to the ground, gaining no headway while cartons from the bed of a passing driverless truck blow over him and further impede his progress.
In the most famous scene of the movie, Keaton stands before a gabled house-front that crashes down on top of him, leaving him unhurt because he stands directly in line with the opened second-floor window. There is even an obvious stop-motion scene in which a building tossed whole by the wind smashes down, skewed but intact, on the ground in front of Keaton, who takes temporary refuge in it.
The true brilliance and interest of Steamboat Bill, Jr. lies in this long cascade of irrational situations and images, one following the other with no relation or reason between them. Keaton made the film in 1928, at the same time as the Dadaists and Surrealists in Europe were experimenting with both static and dynamic collage. In addition to their Exquisite Corpse collages and picture-making-by-chance techniques (described in an earlier blog post), these artists were making experimental films filled with irrational situations and sequences: Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast; Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique; René Clair’s and Francis Picabia’s Entr’acte; Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman; Buñuel’s and Dali’s L’Age d’Or and Chien Andalou; Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet — all of these tested the limits of narrative film-making or did without plot altogether.
Did Keaton know of these Surrealist films? If so, was he inspired by them to create his own reading of irrationality? Was he simply giving his own spin to the trick-photography and illusions created a generation earlier by Georges Méliès, the pioneering French magician-cinematographer? And more fundamentally, was Keaton even aware of how his strings of eerie, improbable gags created their own nonsensical, dreamlike world? Did he know his film was a collage in motion?