Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)

This week we will watch Buster Keaton’s 1928 classic silent film, Steamboat Bill Jr. on Thursday and Friday in Cartooning & Animation.

While watching the film we will stop occasionally to take a closer look at how story and characterization can be conveyed without relying on sound/talking.

Live action film had a heavy influence on the early animators; the greatest silent film makers were able to tell a story and express mood and emotion visually with a minimum of dialogue. This was achieved with a focus on clear staging, body language, and facial expression. These three concepts are incredibly important for animation, and even more so for comics.

A Silent Speech

When the movie opens inter titles fill in a great deal of information; they tell us who people are and set the scene. JJ King pulls up to River Junction in his brand new steamboat, the King, and waves with a smirk at Steamboat Bill standing on the deck of his broken down steamboat, the Stonewall Jackson.  The King pulls up to the dock next to the Stonewall Jackson and JJ KIng begins to give a speech to the assembled crowd. We don’t hear a single word, and no inter title appears to fill us in on what he’s saying, yet we know exactly what he’s saying:

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JJ King steams into River Junction with his brand new steamboat, the King. A crowd of spectators welcome him.

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King, centered in the composition, raises his hand and speaks. He waves his hand towards the shore.

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The camera cross dissolves to the River Junction Bank: JJ King is president.

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Another cross dissolve reveals the Hotel King.

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Back to JJ King: he waves his hat toward the front of the boat.

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Cut to the pilot house of his boat with his name emblazoned on the side.

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The crowd cheers.

We did not hear a single word and there were no formal inter titles to break down what was said, but we still did do some reading. We read the banner on the dock celebrating the new steam boat. When King begins to give his speech we learn that he is a powerful individual in town; he owns a steam boat company, a hotel, and he is president of the local bank. King smiles and seems to take great pride in his accomplishments and property. His character is firmly established.


Moments from Steamboat Bill, Jr.

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Marion Byron

Marion Byron (1911-1985) worked for Hal Roach studios and at one point was teamed up with Anita Garvin as a ‘female Laurel & Hardy’ comedy team.

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