Buster Keaton in “The Boat”

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Today is the anniversary of the release of the classic Buster Keaton comedy short The Boat (1921).

This energetic, focused little movie has always been a particular favorite among Keaton fans. The Damfinos, the international Buster Keaton fan club is named after the name of his boat, i.e. “Damned if I know!”  It’s not Keaton’s most surreal or inventive movie by a long shot, but it feels like one of his most personal. It feels a lot like we imagine the offscreen Keaton must have been at home: Keaton the family man and eccentric hobbyist. This film is almost like a sequel to One Week. Having gotten married to bride Sybil Seeley and built his house, he now has a family and has built a boat. (In fact, Keaton considered editing together these two shorts and making a feature out of them).

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When we first meet Buster he is rocking below decks in a boat. In the next shot we see that the boat is in his basement, still being built; he scolds his kid for rocking it with a rope. Now the boat is complete and Buster is ready to move it out, but the door is too small. He knocks out a bigger hole and tows the boat out…but the boat blows an even bigger hole through the wall, knocking out half of the house’s foundation. The house collapses. The family goes on their outing anyway. (But not before grabbing a bathtub to replace the lifeboat that has been destroyed).

The launching of the boat into the water is the next set piece. First the entire car falls in the drink, as he backs the boat in. One of the kids is in the path of the sliding boat, but is saved at the last minute. Then the boat slides right to the bottom of the water, never floating at all. In the next scene, somehow it is above water. Then one of the kids falls in. Buster tests the water temperature with thermometer before rescuing him.

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Now he finally sets off (collapsing a dock in the process). We discover that he has rigged boat with an ingenious device that allows him to  pull down the masts and smokestack as the boat passes under low bridges. They do this a few times, but then Buster gets distracted, misses one, and the masts collapse and knock him into the water. The boat keeps going. He swims fast to catch up to it, and climbs back aboard. He throws the anchor into the water — it floats. Below decks, he nails a picture of the sea into the hull. A leak springs. Buster momentarily thinks it is coming from the painted water in the picture. He stops up the leak with one of the wife’s pancakes.

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Then the climax — a bad storm comes up. The boat turns over and over. The leak starts again. Buster drills a hole in floor to let water out.  The influx is worse than ever. The family put on life belts. The wife and kids get into the bathtub. Buster is stuck on the boat, which sinks. He swims over to the tub, and gets in. One of the boys pulls the plug,  forcing everyone to bail frantically so the tub will stay afloat. It is hopeless.  The kiss one another goodbye and the tub sinks. Then they realize that they are only in a foot or two of water. They walk ashore. Wife: “Where are we?”. Buster (mouthed but not titled this time): “Damfino” (Damned if I know). The International Buster Keaton Society uses this reference as their nickname.

To learn more about comedy film history, including great Buster Keaton comedies like “The Boat” please check out Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube

2 comments

  1. This gives you an idea not only of how strenuous the comedy was back then (how much effort it took to pull off) but also the inventiveness of it all. That boat had to be constructed, the house, etc. All for a 20 minute movie. Really great.

    Like

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