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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Steamboat Bill Jr. is the tenth of Buster Keaton's twelve great comedy features from the silent era. It features one of his most fantastic set pieces: a destructive cyclone that blows down several buildings and blasts pedestrians and cars across the street. (In one famous shot, a building falls on top of him, and his body passes harmlessly through an open window.) There's a good deal of threatening, shoving, punching, and brawling in this movie, mostly from the character of Buster's father. The main character falls in love with a girl, though nothing physical (kissing, etc.) is shown. The father character smokes a pipe and chews tobacco. The heroes sometimes engage in illegal or illicit activities, but all is made right by their heroic acts during the final stretch. Old feuds end and arguments are patched up. This is mostly OK for kids, as long as they don't try these spectacular stunts at home!
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What's the story?
"Steamboat Bill" (Ernest Torrence) and his faithful first mate (Tom Lewis) run the most dilapidated paddle steamer on the river. The wealthy Mr. King (Tom McGuire) hopes to run him out of business with a fancier, more expensive vessel. At this point, Bill's estranged son, Willie Canfield Jr. (Buster Keaton), returns home from college. But rather than a tough river man, he's a big-city softie. To make matters more complicated, King's pretty daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) also returns home, and she and Willie fall in love. When Bill tries to stand up to the evil King and winds up in jail, Willie realizes that he must do what's right for his family. Unfortunately, a massive cyclone hits, changing everyone's plans.
Is it any good?
Buster Keaton's camera never errs; it's always in the right place at the right time to get the funniest laughs, the most glorious rhythms, and the most beautiful moments of human connection. This was Keaton's final feature as an independent filmmaker (before he signed his ill-fated contract with MGM), and he used the opportunity to top himself with the cyclone sequence. The cyclone provides many amazing, memorable moments, but the most famous is the one in which the front of a building falls on Keaton, and his body passes safely through an open window. (Legend has it that if the comedian had missed his mark by an inch, he would have been crushed.)
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's violence. It seems that Willie's father tries to solve everything through force and violence. Does he get anywhere with this method?
What does the movie have to say about big city education? When Willie returns home, he is seen as a wimp and a milquetoast. But the small town and the river turn him into a "man." What are the differences between the city and a small town?
When Willie tries to break his father out of prison, is he doing the right thing?
Why are Keaton's gags, which are based on falling down and getting hurt, funny?
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