Steamboat Bill Jr.

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Steamboat Bill Jr. Movie Poster Image
Some violence in silent comedy masterpiece.
  • NR
  • 1928
  • 70 minutes

Parents say

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Kids say

age 6+
Based on 2 reviews

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Given that the father-son relationship in the movie occurs when the son is at college level, it's unlikely that younger viewers will get much from that theme. But the character discovering his bravery in a tough situation may resonate.

Positive Messages

The movie's main theme is that nobody has the power to change the behavior of others, no matter how abhorrent. But if the right situation comes along, their behavior might turn out to be admirable, brave, and helpful, all by itself. On the negative side, there is a brief joke involving an African-American man.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The main character starts the movie as a milquetoast, but eventually learns to be brave in a crisis, and to help others, including his enemies.

Violence & Scariness

Characters shove and threaten each other, punches are thrown, and there's occasional brawling. Characters throw rocks at one another (but miss). A huge cyclone strikes and wreaks havoc in the town, destroying buildings and sending people running for their lives.

Sexy Stuff

The main character falls in love with a girl and prepares to run away with her. There's no kissing or physical contact. We see some of her frilly underthings during a daring water rescue in the final act. We see a poster for a movie called "The Boob," which refers to an idiot rather than a body part.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The steamboat captain smokes a pipe and chews tobacco. He gives Buster some chewing tobacco and he accidentally swallows it. There's a partly covered ad for cigarettes (no brand name) on a building.

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!

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say

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Kid, 12 years old February 23, 2017


This film is sooo funny! How Buster Keaton just keeps a straight face the entire time. The violence may be frightening for some, but for me, it's just comi... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byFILMCRITIC500 January 2, 2014

super funny silent comedy has destructive sequence and smoking

funnier than The General and Young Sherlock, this Buster Keaton comedy is also the most violent, but the whole movie does have a strong comedic undertone. still... Continue reading

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.)

But this movie has far more to it than a famous stunt. Ernest Torrence gave one of the great supporting performances in Keaton's films as the gruff, grizzled father. Their straining relationship adds many emotional layers to the story.

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?

Movie details

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