A boat is referenced in the title, but the most famous sequence in this Buster Keaton comedy takes place on land. When a windstorm hits the river town where the story is set, Keaton and director Charles Reisner pull out all the stops: pedestrians are flipped head over heels, unattended vehicles go barreling down the road and roofs fly off the buildings. Keaton’s title character, of course, ambles through it all seemingly unaware, even when the facade of a house nearly crushes him (he’s conveniently standing right where an open window lands).
The narrative proper concerns Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr., a diminutive, gentle and well-dressed Northerner who has come South to reunite with his gruff boat captain of a father (a very funny Ernest Torrence). Immediately exasperated by his son’s beret, violin and well-manicured mustache, the father gives him a shave, a new hat and sets about manning him up to take over as captain of the decrepit Stonewall Jackson. Things don’t go well, partly because Bill Jr. is distracted by the sophisticated daughter (Marion Byron) of J.J. King (Tom McGuire), who happens to own the stately steamship that represents the wave of the future.
So there are a few thoughts about class and progress at play here, but mostly this is a collection of charming gags: Keaton navigating a plank that connects the rival boats; an exceedingly inept jailbreak that somehow still succeeds; a climactic rescue scene on the windswept river that rivals most of the big-budget action sequences we get today. With that expressionless face and unhurried demeanor Keaton becomes here, quite literally, the calm in the eye of the storm.