Buster Keaton’s face is one of the great works of twentieth-century art. And it was never more lovingly framed than in this slick, sweet-natured and insanely inventive 1928 silent comedy masterpiece, now flawlessly restored in 4K digital. Buster plays William Canfield Jr, the effete, estranged son of a rustic riverboat captain (Ernest Torrance) who returns to the family home following his mother’s death. Blazered, bereted and clutching a ukulele, young Bill is a flaming embarrassment to his grizzled old Pops, who’s already in deep water after a local ferry tycoon (Tom McGuire) muscles in on his commercial territory.
In the hands of any other comic – including Chaplin – Bill Jr would be a royal pain, a preening toff in a world of straw-sucking hicks. But Keaton never plays superior – you suspect he couldn’t if he tried. His face remains perfectly serene – and serenely perfect – whether he’s enduring a tongue-lashing from Dad, being tossed over the side of the ship by a local thug or leaping into the water to rescue his intended (Marion Byron) from a hurricane. And the physical stunts are, of course, extraordinary. In addition to arguably the most iconic sight gag in movie history – the one with the falling wall and the just-the-right-size window – the film is crammed with Méliès-esque visual trickery and joyous, expressive acrobatics. The scene where Buster flings himself, pell-mell, from the top cabin of the ferry to rescue Bill Sr is just one moment of giddy, heart-stopping perfection among many. If your faith in humanity needs a little pick-me-up, there’s no better place to start.