Buster Keaton #9: The Boat (1921)

The Boat

Released 10 November 1921. Written & directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. Starring Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Eddie Cline, and two unidentified child actors.

Around the second time Buster drills a hole into the bottom of his boat, as he’s in it at sea, I said out loud, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MAN?” But the Keaton family—played by Keaton, Sybil Seely, and two adorable but unidentified boys—has spent the entire short proving that it is utterly unseaworthy, so why was I surprised? Every step has been a disaster. They built the boat (the Damfino) inside their house but didn’t make any plans to get it out of the house. The house pays the price. They don’t know how to launch the boat into the sea from the harbor. The harbor, and the family car, pays the price. The Damfino, though it is an engineering contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg, isn’t really a good boat. The family pays the price. Hell, they’re lucky to make it out alive.

The Boat is hilarious and heartwarming. No matter how poorly this family understands seafaring, or in how much danger they put themselves, they are affectionate and kind to each other. Sure, the boys get spanked a couple of times, but those boys act like miniature Buster Keatons, careening through and collapsing everything, so it’s hard to blame Keaton and Seely. Mostly, though, the boy actors are allowed to tumble, pratfall, slosh through water, and crack wise, just like the adults. So, it’s a funny family, even though they’re deadly serious about getting boating right.

Trouble is, their knowledge of boats extends only to books, and not to lived experience at sea. So, this short is, among other things, a sly treatise on the differences between theory and practice. The Keatons designed and built this modern boat without comprehension of water, flotation, mechanics, or common sense. So, like the house in The Scarecrow, the boat looks really cool on paper—the sails fold into the boat so that it can pass under low bridges; the interior has a gas stove and retractable bunk beds—but can barely function for its intended purpose.

This family thinks that it is eminently practical but their practices are based only on what they think should happen, and not at all on the calamity that’s all around them, and that they’re not noticing. This tension, I think, is the essence of Buster Keaton’s comedy. He barrels into trouble, all the while thinking that he’s completely reasonable (sometimes he’s right, sometimes he ain’t), and when things don’t go according to plan, he devises a new one on the spot, without regard for whether it makes sense to anyone but him. It’s beautiful, and it’s hard to get right without making the hero seem like either an idiot or an asshole. But Buster and his actors do it, almost always.

Part of why this tension works is that Keaton’s moviemaking process was the exact opposite of what gets onscreen. He designed his shorts and features around practice and live experimentation, rather than theoretical design. In a 1956 interview with Arthur B. Friedman, Keaton says that what he found so appealing about cinema was “the mechanics of it. The way of working—fascinating. One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces, and found out [about] the lenses and the splicing of film and how to get it on the projector.” He also never used shooting script, instead brainstorming ideas with his cast and crew, working with jotted notes on-set, and tailoring the plots around the places and contraptions at hand. It’s a hands-on mode that worked because he surrounded himself with nerdy vaudevillians, people as comfortable with imagining a romantic subplot as with engineering new devices.

One of those dreamy geeks was Elgin Lessley, Keaton’s cinematographer for all of Keaton’s shorts, a key idea man (along with Eddie Cline and Clyde Bruckman) for some of the most elaborate gags, and the special-effects visionary that helped generate the magical, fairly unbelievable shots in Sherlock Jr, The Playhouse, and The Haunted House. So, Lessley’s an unsung film hero. Here, there’s less trickery than what will come later. But there is gorgeous, voluptuous nighttime photography all throughout The Boat, true inky, bone-deep blacks and rich, velvety contrasts—not just tinting the celluloid blue after the fact, or shooting through a purple lens, but what looks like actual night. (It’s a stage set for the nighttime storm but the effect holds.) There are lovely, clean compositions that use white space and open sea to evoke peace and menace alike.

The Boat (2) The Boat (3) The Boat (4)
Boat, The (Buster sinks)And, oh alright, there’s one dazzling prop—the boat’s interior. The Family Keaton glides blithely into a storm, because of course they do; this is a Buster Keaton comedy, after all. Buster tries to radio for help, at precisely the moment that the water gets choppiest:

Boat, The (boat roll)It’s an awesome, sorta scary sight. I imagine that Keaton & Co. constructed a room that could be rotated 360 degrees, with one open side, and then allowed a camera to shoot it from a distance from the room, so that the camera wouldn’t rotate along with Buster. I also imagine Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire were taking notes thirty years later, in 1951, when they made Royal Wedding

Astaire’s dance is more elegant that Keaton’s but not more beautiful, not at all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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