The Boat (1921)
The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.
The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.
There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.
At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.
The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there. Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though, the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.
We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.
After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.
Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).
Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Camera: Elgin Lessley
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline
Run Time: 24 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).