A pair of silent gems.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of silent film legend Buster Keaton, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start than with the new two-for-the-price-of-one sets being issued by Kino Lorber. Both contain one all-time classic and one pretty solid companion feature, and come with a generous supply of interesting supplemental material. It’s hard to say which combo is richer: The General/Three Ages (also reviewed on this site) or Steamboat Bill, Jr./College, but both are worthy additions to the collection of any cinephile.
In the first feature offered by this collection, Keaton plays William Canfield, Jr., the son of a grizzled riverboat captain known as “Steamboat Bill.” The father and son haven’t seen each other in many years, but now find an opportunity to bond as Steamboat Bill tries to deal with the problem of rival steamboat owner J.J. King (Tom McGuire). King has a fancy new ship, and he seems intent on putting Steamboat Bill out of business. Meanwhile, young William falls in love with a local girl (Marion Byron)… who just so happens to be King’s daughter.
This is a pretty standard-issue setup, and the plot doesn’t exactly throw you any major curveballs. To hell with the plot: the movie is about the joy of Keaton’s craftsmanship, and he’s at the absolute top of his form. There’s a good argument to be made that The General is Keaton’s greatest work overall, but I’d say that Steamboat Bill, Jr. contains the richest individual sequences. While the early, story-driven scenes are fairly standard-issue, the film makes the leap to brilliance when a large cyclone starts tearing through town. The chaos that ensues contains some of Keaton’s most brilliant gags (the window bit is the most iconic) and death-defying stunts.
College, made a year earlier, is essentially Keaton’s riff on Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (some of the plot details are so similar that it becomes entirely too easy to imagine Keaton watching Lloyd’s film and deciding to match him). It’s not as wildly inspired as Steamboat Bill, Jr., but frequently entertaining. Keaton plays an intelligent college student who is simultaneously attempting to A) prove that he has at least some athletic ability, B) woo a fellow student and C) find a job that will allow him to pay his tuition. The struggle to juggle these three elements provides most of the film’s fun. While there are a few stray missteps (including a typical-for-the-era blackface sequence), College is largely a charmer.
Steamboat Bill, Jr./College (Blu-ray) delivers a pair of respectable 1080p transfers. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the sharper-looking of the two, offering impressive detail and relatively few scratches, flecks or bits of damage. College is a bit dingier, but still looks fairly clean and sharp given its age. Steamboat Bill, Jr. offers two LPCM 2.0 musical scores: an orchestral score by Timothy Brock and an organ score by Lee Erwin (both are good, but Brock’s sounds much more robust). Likewise, College gives viewers a choice between scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and organist John Muri. Supplements on Steamboat Bill, Jr. include an audio commentary with film historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffei, an introduction and a vintage Alka-Seltzer commercial. College offers a commentary from Rob Farr, two introductions (including a vintage intro from Lillian Gish), the Keaton short film “The Scribe” (the actor’s final performance), the 1928 short “Run, Girl, Run” (starring Carol Lombard) and a featurette offering a tour of filming locations.
Offering two fine Keaton flicks at a reasonable price, this collection earns an easy recommendation.