Filmsite Movie Review
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Pages: (1) (2)
Plot Synopsis (continued)


After a disastrous first day at home, Willie's sullen father awakens him (with a cold face-full of water) and presents him with some cash and a one-way train ticket to return east on the next train. (Destination from River Junction to Boston, Mass.) Likewise, Bill, Sr. is shown a posted condemnation notice that has declared his steamboat unsafe:


This is to notify that the steamer Stonewall Jackson is unsafe and hereby CONDEMNED until further investigation.
Public Safety Committee

Assuming that King has instigated and arranged the investigation, an angry Steamboat Bill, Sr. confronts King in public:

Bill, Sr: Are you responsible for this?
King: Well, it ought to be condemned, the first good wind would sink it anyhow....(To the assembled crowd) This man not only threatened my life but has defied the law.

Their confrontation results in a brawl on the downtown street, and Bill, Sr. is arrested and jailed for assaulting King and defying the law. Slowly making his way to the train station, Willie sees his frustrated girlfriend coming toward him on the road. He puts down his luggage bag, steps aside, hangs his head sheepishly, and starts stammering out an apology or explanation to her. Before she hears anything, she side-steps him and walks into a public building behind him. When he looks up, she has disappeared - with a baffled look on his face as he twists and turns to locate her, he speculates whether she was only a figment of his imagination. He picks up his bag and resumes his forlorn walk. Meanwhile, Mary has second thoughts and emerges from the building, where she sees him walking away - she bites her lip, contemplates what to do next, and then follows - indecisively.

Willie walks forward and then pauses when he sees his father being driven to the jail for incarceration. Mary also pauses behind him. He overhears one of the jailers: "King will see that he don't get out of here for awhile." Dismayed, he rips up his train ticket and vows to try and free his river tramp father. Mary walks up to just a few feet behind him, as he picks up his bag and turns to walk back to town - determined to remain and save his father. She turns when he turns - now appearing to walk away from him. He stops in his tracks, pauses - and surely asks himself what's going on. Where did she come from and why is she walking away - again?

Newspaper Weather Report (closeup): WEATHER CONDITIONS, Unsettled - - - wet and cloudy.

On a very wet and rainy day with a steady downpour, Willie (wearing his father's oversized work-clothes) visits the jail. As he walks along the muddy street with an impractical umbrella, he sinks waist-deep into a puddle. The strong wind blows his umbrella inside-out, and sends him sprawling backwards. He looks foolish as he still valiantly holds onto the upside-down umbrella. In the jailhouse, he unwraps a white parcel - a gift of a large loaf of bread for his dejected father ("I've brought my poor father bread"). Of course, his disgusted father refuses the bread from his clownish son:

Bill, Sr.: Throw both him and the bread out.
Willie: (determined) Tell him I made it myself. (His father vehemently refuses) I'll just wait around until he is famished. (He protectively cradles the loaf in his arms)

As Willie waits in the jailhouse, he sees the lyrics of THE PRISONER'S SONG framed on the wall - and begins singing the song, while rhythmically tapping the fingers of his right hand on top of the loaf.

The Prisoner's Song

Oh! I wish I had some one to love me -
Some one to call me their own;
Oh! I wish I had some one to live with -
'Cause I'm tired of living alone...

He pantomimes with his hands how a prisoner might escape, by sawing through the jail bars and removing them, knocking the jailer on the head with a few whacks, and saying goodbye (blowing a kiss) to imprisonment. Unfortunately, Willie's father cannot understand the disguised and coded message and turns away. To be more direct with his father, Willie has a second strategy. He drops a rock paperweight onto the floor, throws a second rock over his shoulder to break the jail window, and then picks up the rock on the floor - pretending that it was the object that just broke the glass. When the dim-witted sheriff is looking out the window at the possible cause, Willie tears open one end of the loaf of bread to show his father that the interior is hollowed out with escape tools hidden inside. The scene becomes melodramatically exaggerated as Bill, Sr. pleads with his son:

Willie: I guess I better go.
Bill, Sr.: (calling through the bars) I've changed my mind - I want the bread.
Willie: (sad-hearted) No, I don't think you do.
Bill, Sr.: (pleading) Come, my boy - I was only foolin'.
Willie: I know what it is - you're ashamed of my baking.
Bill, Sr.: You talk to him, Sheriff.
Sheriff: (intervening and grabbing Willie's shoulder) After all, the old bum is your father.

Unfortunately, all the tools fall out one end of the loaf as young Willie is escorted over to the cell. He sheepishly explains:

That must of happened when the dough fell in the tool chest.

As he is about to be locked up in another cell, Willie flees, commencing a chase that ends when the Sheriff drops his jail keys and Willie obligingly hands them back. The Sheriff is unappreciative of Willie's generosity and shoves him against the bars. Bill, Sr. coaxes his wimpy son to fight like a man:

Bill, Sr.: Don't let him do that to you, Willie, bust him on the jaw.
Sheriff: (unworried) What - this shrimp hit me?
Bill, Sr.: If he'd ever hit you on your jaw he'd break it. (The Sheriff offers his jutting-out jaw to Willie, gesturing to be hit)
Willie: No, I might hurt you. (The Sheriff insists)

Willie knocks the Sheriff out with one blow - not to his jaw but to his round stomach. His father is released and escapes outside into the rain where he hides in the bushes, but Willie is left behind when his long coat is caught in the closed cell door. When he finally frees his clothing by unlocking the cell door, deputies arriving on the front porch force him to remain long enough for the revived and angry Sheriff to whack him over the head with his gun. Bill, Sr. witnesses the painful blow and the sending of his unconscious son "to the receiving hospital." Bill, Sr. stomps out of hiding toward the Sheriff and punches him in the face, and then obediently returns to his cell.

Newspaper Weather Report (closeup): WEATHER CONDITIONS, Storm clouds in the offing.

The final sequence of the film involves a terrifically destructive tornado/cyclone, and some beautifully-executed sight gags. From the front porch of the King Hotel, J. J. King is warned by his steamboat captain of the coming wind storm:

The pier is not strong enough to hold the boat against this wind.

The wind buffets them and others in the street as they bend into its forceful power. Others point into the sky and scramble for cover and shelter. One man cranks the front of his parked convertible automobile as the black top is blown off. The cover serves as a sail to propel the vehicle down the street - with him being dragged along in the mud as he grips the bumper. The car crashes into the hotel's curb at the far end of the street. The dock that has ropes holding the King steamboat next to it collapses as the steamer breaks away. Some of the crew leap off the boat for the safety of the shore. First mate Tom signals his crew on the Stonewall Jackson to secure their boat. The entire front of the King Hotel weakens, collapses into splinters, and is blown away.

At the waterfront, the King's Fish Palace (that sells ice cream and sodas) is also destroyed. On the street, people desperately struggle to enter a storm cellar, as a man rolls about on the ground enveloped in vines. In the town's hospital where Willie has been taken, white-shirted patients (one memorable patient is a fat bearded man with his leg in a cast) and nurses flee into the street just before the hospital walls and roof are entirely blown away. Alone, Willie (with an icebag on the top of his head) is left sitting on his open-air hospital bed as everything lifts up into the sky.

He looks around, notices the disaster area encircling him, gets up, grabs his coat from a nearby chair, places his hat over the icepack on his head, and then runs to escape through the rear of the open building. However, the entire facade of the library falls crashing to the floor in front of him, so he must change direction and return to the safety of his bed. From that position, he is sent on his wind-propelled, runaway bed into the ruins of the street and into the open door of a horse stable where the curious animals watch his arrival. He pulls the covers from his head, sits up and is startled to realize where he is. His journey continues through the back door of the stable and into the street - where the bed rests in front of a two-storied house. Willie hides and cowers under the bed as a man on the attic floor of the splintering house scurries around and then leaps onto the bed. The man's fall smashes the bed and dazes Willie who is hiding underneath. The man rushes away - and the wind blows the bed after him.

At this point in the story, this film is known for one of the most suicidal and terrifying stunts and scenes in screen history. Steamboat Bill, Jr., groggy and dizzy from the man's jump, stands up in front of the house that is about to be ripped apart from the forceful winds. As he pauses there, the entire two-ton facade or front of the building falls forward and crashes down on top of him. All that saves him is a small window opening in the upper story, through which his body passes. [Planning the stunt, the wall had to be positioned perfectly to match exactly where he was standing, with only inches of clearance to avoid crushing him to death. The gag - with lesser danger - also appeared in Keaton's earlier films Back Stage (1919) and One Week (1920).]

Frightened almost as an afterthought, he runs from the collapsed building on the ground and just avoids being flattened by another disintegrating house. When he turns to run away, he is propelled down the street - sliding, tumbling, and turning like other wind-blown objects. He struggles to run into the wind, bending forward at a significant angle but without making any progress. A few leaps into the cyclone result in little headway. When a truck loaded with boxes drives by in front of him, the wind blows the packages in his direction and covers him with flying debris.

Escaping from the furious forces of nature, he finds refuge in the ruins of the town's theater. Only part of an exterior wall remains with a door marked STAGE-DOOR. Willie runs through the door - as he closes it, the entire wall falls down on him. Luckily, he opens the door (now resting horizontally) and nonchalantly escapes. In the backstage area of the fragmented, mysterious showplace, he catches his foot in a dangling rope and falls - when he untangles the rope and pulls on it, a sandbag drops on his head from above and painfully sends him crashing to the floor. Standing up but delirious, he peers at the canvas backdrop of the stage - a painted view of a lake. Believing that it is real, he runs toward it and dives, but again slides, falls neck-first and flat on his face. After examining the fake scenery for a moment, he lifts it up and walks under it, causing the fanciful backdrop to collapse and roll onto the stage's floor.

Willie also inspects a ventriloquist's dummy sitting on a shelf. When the unstable shelf shifts and leans in his direction, it creates the illusion that the inanimate dummy is alive - it turns its head toward him and scares him away. Disoriented, he runs to another section of the stage where his foot steps on a horn - the honking sound causes him to jump up onto a table with a false front. He pulls on a cord that hangs next to him, causing a curtained, circular canopy to instantly descend and surround him. When he pulls the cord again from behind the curtain, he magically disappears into thin air, but then emerges from a trap door under the table. He crawls away from the table back toward the direction of the dummy. When he bumps into the shelf - the ominous dummy seems to lurch toward him and drop into his hands - and then onto the floor. When he finally exits through the back door of the stage, the theater's wall collapses and falls forward.

Back out in the wide-open outdoors, Willie runs toward a swinging wooden gate (plastered with a Temptress poster) in the middle of a tall fence. He jumps up onto the top of the gate and is swung around by the wind. After the gate swings sharply and slams against the opposite side of the fence, he scrambles back over the fence (over another poster labeled The Boob), pauses and then attempts to walk through the open gate. As he does so, the wind closes it and blows it back in his face. As he scurries away from the fence, he slides feet-first into a doghouse. In pantomime, an unseen animal drags him in and presumably bites him in the rear end. Predictably, he leaps out of the opening, grabs the back of his pants, scowls in the direction of the doghouse, and runs into an open field where he runs aimlessly in circles - dodging more wind-blown objects. Out of nowhere, an entire house falls down on him. He calmly emerges by walking out of the side door of the just-dropped house and then races away. The wind (and an off-screen object) convinces him to return to the house, where he retreats into its side door. An outhouse tumbles by the side of the house - after its passing, Willie cautiously steps out to look around. As he walks away from the house, the entire structure behind him collapses into a pile of planks of lumber.

Elsewhere, Mary climbs up a house's porch steps to escape the wind. Willie runs by as a group of men struggle to open a storm cellar door and find shelter. The door closes before he can make it inside, and he vainly attempts to pull it open (while standing on it) and alert them by knocking. As he walks across the street, he is electrocuted and flattened by a disconnected power line - it sparks when he touches it. Again, he runs and slides - this time into the base of a tree trunk. With a tight embrace, he clings to it and wraps his body around it. Filmed in a long shot, he and the entire trunk are uprooted and carried along in the air over the town before they are both dumped in the raging river near his father's side-wheeler. Meanwhile, Willie's father is still imprisoned in the jailhouse. Fortuitously, the wind blows over a large tree that falls into the side of the jail, sending the building sliding down the riverbank into the water. But unluckily, Bill, Sr. finds himself waist-deep in his cell and drowning as he holds onto the bars on the cell's window - he calls out for help.

Willie swims over to the Stonewall Jackson and climbs up its paddlewheel - the undamaged steamer has broken loose from its moorings and floats aimlessly down the river. He becomes a hero in the stirring finale by making four miraculous and brave rescues:

  • A half-submerged, upside-down house floats by next to the steamer, with Mary clinging precariously to a side window and positioning her feet on the corner of the roof. Willie grabs his ship's anchor and heaves it at the lip of the roof, using it like a grappling hook to catch and hold the moving house. He ties the end of the anchor's rope to the steamboat, jumps onto the dangling rope, and acrobatically climbs hand-over-hand to the house to save Mary from drowning. She frantically holds onto his back with a tight grip as they make their way back across the rope. The weight is too much for him - and for the anchor rope - and they both fall into the water. However, Willie swims over to the paddleboat with Mary, climbs aboard, and gently places her on its deck.

  • The jailhouse holding Willie's father floats by and he hears his father's desperate pleas for rescue now that the water is becoming neck-deep. Down in the engine room, Willie ties ropes to the paddlewheel control levers (both the stop and the start mechanisms). And then in the steering tower, he literally commands his father's steamboat to save his father from drowning. He pulls on the other ends of the ropes to drive the steamboat forward to crash into the side of the jailhouse and then to stop - his father is freed from the debris and wreckage. Willie leaps down from the tower in four graceful, free-form jumps to different levels, reaches his father in just seconds, and helps him climb on board. His father smiles approvingly at his girlfriend.

  • Willie ascends back to the steering room of the steamboat, effortlessly climbing up each of the four levels. Once again, he pulls on the rope to start the paddlewheel and drive the steamboat closer to the sunken King steamship, where a floundering J. J. King clings to his destroyed, submerged machine. Jumping down to a lower deck, Willie wraps a rope around his waist and dives almost two-stories from there into the river. He swims to Mary's father, rescues him, and swims back with him to safety. Mary and Bill, Sr. help pull the two of them onto the deck of the Stonewall Jackson. Willie unties the rope from his waist and receives a kiss and a hug from Mary, while the two rival fathers shake hands. Suddenly, Willie grabs a life preserver, jumps into the racing waters, and swims away. A rejected Mary looks on with dismay, and the two perplexed fathers look toward him and wonder why they are being deserted.

  • There is a fourth rescue that explains Willie's curious action - he splashes back to the boat, towing a priest/minister in a life preserver. The screen fades to black - before the inevitable scene of a harmonious, unifying wedding ceremony.

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