Steamboat Bill Jr. Movie Poster Image

Steamboat Bill Jr.



Some violence in silent comedy masterpiece.
  • Rated: NR
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release Year: 1928
  • Running Time: 70 minutes

What parents need to know

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

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.

Not applicable
Not applicable
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.

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!

Parents say

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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.)

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.

Families can talk 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

Theatrical release date:May 20, 1928
DVD/Streaming release date:July 6, 2010
Cast:Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence, Marion Byron
Directors:Buster Keaton, Charles Reisner
Character strengths:Courage
Run time:70 minutes
MPAA rating:NR

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What parents and kids say

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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, young children may be frightened by the big hurricane scene at the end, with lots of crumbling houses and widespread destruction. there are also some punches thrown, and some pipe smoking.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


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