#43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

Coincidence: I watched Steamboat Bill Jr, a movie about a cataclysmic hurricane, in a shuttered bedroom, a dog in my lap, waiting for Hurricane Matthew to make landfall here in Miami. It was looking for a few days like it’d be as bad for us as the hurricane depicted here in the movie, wherein houses are torn apart or dragged to different parts of town, but the more pressing analogy on everybody’s mind was Hurricane Andrew, a Cat 5 that leveled Miami back in ’92 (I was just a year old, and – after all the horrible Memory Lane-ing I’ve been hearing about it this week – I’m glad I don’t remember shit), and since Andrew was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, with this new storm on the horizon, superstition was hard to avoid and people were pretty openly sweating and tugging at their collars. Every conversation at work was about generators and how long did you lose power last time, who’s got accordion shutters installed around their windows and who’s gotta put up wooden ones, who lives close enough to water that they’ve gotta worry about sand bags at the door. Etc. Gas lines were twenty cars long and cases of bottled water were stacked like monuments in every drug store and grocery from probably the Keys on up to Tampa. What I learned a couple days ago from an older colleague is that the reason Hurricane Andrew was so destructive – apart from the obvious fact that it had sustained winds of over a hundred MPH– is because it was a Cat 3 until like a few hours before landfall. Then it shot up to a 5. Nobody was prepared.

steamboat bill gif windMatthew took a turn suddenly and didn’t hit Miami but my dad and I had drawn the shutters just in case. We brought the trashcans from the backyard to the patio and we bought some propane, some food to grill, picked out books – usual hurricane prep. My dad also bought two air mattresses, the big expensive kind, because, back when Matthew was looking like something really formidable, my dad was planning to invite his mom (86), his dad (89), his aunt (91) and the two nurses who stay with the aforementioned ladies (both in their 60s). Plus my grandfather’s wife. So there would have been eight of us in this house of two beds. My great aunt is senile and incontinent, and increasingly violent, and while my grandparents are pretty much ambulatory, self-sufficient, they’re also, like most octogenarians, pretty set in their ways. Not sure how to elaborate on that. Things would’ve gotten tense, is my point.

Fortunately the hurricane made its new path clear before the old folks came over. But then my dad invited a certain other relative over, somebody who isn’t my brother, and when my dad later smelled that relative getting stoned in the bathroom, it soured his (i.e. Dad’s) mood, and filled the house with tension, and ruined the day. This non-fraternal relative went home after napping on the couch for a few hours and then, when the storm was beyond Miami, my dad invited me to sit with him and share some fancy wine he’d opened for the occasion. He asked me, while pouring, “Is [relative-who-isn’t-your-brother] addicted to joints?”

I watched the wine and didn’t say anything.

Shaking his head, “He has to be.”

“I doubt it.”

He said, “It’s the only conceivable explanation.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes. Yes. That he was so jonesing for a fix, he had to light up a joint in the – and that’s another thing: does he think I’m an idiot? He says he’s going in there to take a shower but doesn’t take a change of clothes? Just runs the water and smokes a joint? And then of course the overwhelming smell of whatever perfume he tried to cover his tracks with…”

It was a big to-do.


steamboat bill gif window
He’d done the stunt in two previous movies but this was the most dangerous. The front of the house is said to’ve weighed 2,000 pounds. Keaton would have been killed if he was an inch off his mark.

Anyway. It was after the storm prep, but while still in wait for this relative’s arrival, that I watched Steamboat Bill Jr in my room with Mango (my dog) and, yeah, it’s great. Not sure where I’d rank it among the other Keaton movies on the List so far, Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr and The General, but it’s as ambitious and exhausting, stunt-wise, as anything in Keaton’s career (up to this point). The long sequence where the storm finally hits and Keaton’s being swept all around town his hilarious, totally mesmerizing to watch, and I was so delighted to see that this movie seems to be the source of that gag where the front wall of a house falls forward, nearly crushing our hero, but he happens to be standing in an open window space.

But I guess I got caught up there in talking about my own hurricane experience because, again, I just don’t know what to say about a comedy except for whether I liked it or not – and, in this case, to compare it with other works from the same star.

One comment

  • Great movie. Amazing the kind of danger Keaton subjected himself to.
    I have often wondered how it is to live in such a hurricane prone place as southern Florida. I was I Miami in 2018 during spring break, my wife has relatives in Miami Beach, but it was so calm and peaceful that I simply could not imagine how this would be during a storm. Must be crazy.


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