- Buster Keaton’s Climate Change
In the spectacular climax of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), a small Mississippi river town is besieged by a ferocious cyclone.1 The unrelenting storm brings down piers, boats, and buildings as hapless residents scramble to find shelter. Eventually the camera settles on the local hospital, where the hurricane-strength winds collapse all four of the structure’s walls to reveal Will Canfield Jr. (Keaton), sitting upright in bed, startled awake by his sudden exposure to the elements. Buffeted by airborne debris and witness to destruction in every direction, a frightened and confused Will pulls the sheet over his head, only to have the intensifying winds blow his bed across town, discarding our bewildered hero in front of a rickety house. What follows is perhaps the most famous sequence in Keaton’s oeuvre. Framed in long shot, Will stands facing the camera with his back to the house when the entire two-story façade breaks free from its structural moorings and falls right on top of him. Will emerges unscathed only because he happens to be standing at the exact position of an open, second-story window through which his body passes in an application of providential geometry. Despite the show-stopping virtuosity of the stunt, Will’s survival burlesque and continues apace: the storm tosses his body like a ragdoll, heaps detritus on top of him, drags him through the mud of this all-but-disappeared town. When he regains his footing, he leans so far into the brutalizing wind that he seems to defy gravity, a body suspended mid pratfall. Gradually Will turns dimwitted survival into ingenious engineering and brute physical strength. He eventually boards his father’s old paddle steamer, the town’s [End Page 25]
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sole place of refuge. Utilizing ropes and eccentric nautical savvy, he rescues the film’s 27 three other main characters, including, of course, his soon-to-be bride.
Will Jr. proves himself worthy of modern love when he transforms his bumbling incapacity into a form of accidental aptitude in the face of natural disaster. In the end, Will improbably brings order to people, things, and the environment they traverse. In fact, beyond merely weathering the storm, he turns its destruction to his romantic advantage. Eric Bullot and Molly Stevens explain that the Keatonian transformation “from obvious incompetence to extreme capability” is typically the result of “urgency, necessity, and the virtues of pragmatism that force him to observe, calculate, and pre-dict” unforeseen outcomes under duress.2 Failures in the social world, Keaton’s heroes manage to thrive in extreme and exceptionally dangerous circumstances, despite that his success is often inadvertent and could just as easily lead to failure.3 Rather they dis-cover that destruction is the engine of narrative reconciliation. This is the catastrophic aesthetic of what Bullot and Stevens refer to as Keaton’s singularly “devastating humor.”4
This essay views Steamboat Bill Jr. as not simply a narrative trajectory of devastation, but a study in environmental design that always and already anticipates its future ruination: in other words, the storm scene described above exposes a manufactured world that is most virtuosic in its unworking. Creating the most expensive comedy to date, Keaton’s studio built to scale three full blocks of the fictional River Junction town along the banks of the Sacramento River not far from the state capital.5 According to the studio press book, thousands of people gathered on the day of Keaton’s storm “to witness the synthetic holocaust” that reduced the entire set to rubble.6 The spectacle of weather design was the central attraction, and the press book explains the engineer-ing behind Keaton’s cyclone to his adoring public. Several hoses, cranes, cables, and six wind machines powered by Liberty airplane motors created the fierce drafts and pelting rain.7 The wind current generated from just one engine...