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This is one of those movies I simply dont understand at all.
I first saw it back in the mid- or late 1970s on Albuquerque television, probably on the PBS outlet,
Released on laserdisc and VHS in 1995, and on DVD a few years later
So I saw it again. And I didnt like it at all. It wasnt the movie that I remembered seeing twenty or so years earlier. Was my memory going, or had something happened? One difference was this charming little scene, which I remembered so clearly. William Canfield Jr has just arrived in town to see his father. They continually miss each other, and Senior (Ernest Torrence) is horrified, mortified, finally to discover his son, badly dressed as a college dandy, with a silly mustache, a pathetic beret, and a ukulele. Junior performs a song and dance to calm a crying baby in a carriage. Senior watches the song and dance in utter disbelief.
My memory, which is only a memory, and which like all memories cannot be relied upon definitively, is that there was a reverse shot, showing the song and dance from Seniors point of view. When I first saw the movie, I thought that was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. If it was ever there, well, its gone now. I mentioned this to a few fellow Busterholics, and each went silent for a few moments, trying to conjure up a stunned memory, and then said, I think youre right!
Also, when I saw the movie again in 1995, I was dumbfounded by a truly pathetic stunt. During a cyclone, Junior grabs onto a tree for safety, but the wind tears a prop tree from its roots and drops both tree and Junior into the calm river.
Yes, I remembered the sequence, but thats not how I remembered it. What I saw in 1995 was awful. Clearly the tree was a prop dangling from a crane. This doesnt even look like a poor take; it looks like test footage made in preparation for the actual stunt. My memory, though, was that when I had seen the movie in the 1970s, I was startled by its realism. But there was nothing at all realistic about what I saw in 1995.
Was my mind really going? Or had I in fact seen two different editions of the movie?
Back in October 2002 I attended the annual Buster Keaton Festival in Muskegon, Michigan, and David Macleod, avid Busterphile from London, gave a lecture entitled Have You Ever Noticed...? Among the interesting DVD clips he presented was the above moment from the cyclone scene. He showed us a snippet from the Kino DVD, which he called the Rohauer version (as it was licensed from the Rohauer Collection), which shows a prop tree dangling sadly from a crane. Then he showed us the correlative snippet from a French DVD, which he called the Killiam version. A ha!!!!! That was it!!!!! So my memory was NOT playing tricks on me after all!!!!! That French DVD showed a frighteningly, terrifyingly realistic version of that same scene. In a fiercely raging wind, the very convincing tree uproots Buster and smashes him into the turbulent river. It was only a fraction the length of the usual version seen nowadays, and it will scare you half to death. Unforgettable. Absolutely unforgettable. It is that brief scene, more than the famous falling-house scene, that really made the movie stand out.
So I set out on a hunt and purchased every video of Steamboat Bill Jr that I could find, taking especial care to locate editions from the Killiam Collection. The hunt ended in utter defeat. The Killiam version seemed to be identical to the Rohauer version in every way, and that beautifully frightening cyclone scene was neither beautiful nor frightening, but laughable in a bad way.
First up was the most obvious choice: the Blackhawk VHS, which was licensed from the Killiam Collection. Same as the Rohauer version.
Well, theres always the Image laserdisc, also licensed from the Killiam Collection. Nope. Same old thing.
Surely the Voyager laserdisc edition, which has the name KILLIAM plastered all over it, would provide what I so desperately sought. Nope.
I asked David where he had gotten that wonderful DVD that he showed us. All he could remember was that it was French. He had given it away and could not remember the manufacturer or cover art or anything else.
So I purchased the only four French DVDs of Steamboat Bill Jr that the vendors would ship outside of France:
No luck at all. The same old dreary, embarrassing version.
Why was this, though?
It is common for movies to be issued in multiple versions, but this is too extreme.
I dont know how things worked precisely, but heres an educated guess about standard operating procedure.
Buster, assisted by J Sherman Kell, would take the movie to the shed in his back yard and edit it together.
Once the definitive preview version was assembled, the negatives from the second camera would be bicycled over to United Artists,
where the gals in the cutting room would piece together a European version,
trying to match the original American version as closely as possible.
This second edited negative would then be shipped off to some place in Europe.
By the time the Euro neg was on the boat, the US edition would be previewed.
Buster and his colleagues would attend the shows and pay attention to audience reactions.
They would then
But thats clearly not what happened with Steamboat Bill Jr. It will probably be a few years before I can finish my book on the change in Busters career (19271929); nonetheless, my research has shed a little light. I shant give all the details here, for I dont want to scoop myself. Suffice it to say, though, that for political considerations it was not in United Artists interest to have Steamboat Bill Jr be a major hit. UA delayed its release for many months, and then, instead of opening it at the luxurious downtown first-run houses, in many or most markets UA opened it in the neighborhood houses. Did the movie make money? Of course it made money! But it was considerably less successful than Busters earlier movies. With previous movies, Buster had been careful to destroy all the footage he did not need. Before he finished Steamboat Bill Jr, though, he had lost control of his studio. My guess is that the negatives were confiscated by the stockholders, who then shipped Busters original US version off to Europe and instructed the cutting gals at UA to piece together a new American negative incorporating the worst of the few surviving outtakes. So thats what were left with now... until, of course, we can trace down that superior version released in Europe!
If you can shed any more light on this matter, or if you know where the superior version is hiding, please write to me!!!!! Thanks!
Here are two more French DVDs that I just discovered, thanks to eBay, but I suspect theyre even more recent, and probably the same old same old same old:
If any of you wonderful French people would like to order one for me, I would happily pay you the full cost plus an honorarium.
NEWS FLASH! On Thursday, 20 May 2010,
Kino announced the forthcoming DVD and
NOTE ADDED TUESDAY, 2 NOVEMBER 2010:
I just received the Kino
P.S. Oh! It was released on laserdisc in Japan too! Must get it:
P.P.S. The story is set in River Junction, Mississippi, wherever that might be. Ive never been anywhere near Mississippi, but I dont think it looks at all like what we see in this movie. Also, does it bother anyone else that there were no books in the library?
Original research and commentary copyright © 20092010 by Ranjit Sandhu. All rights reserved.