Blu-ray Review HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Neil Middlemiss, Dec 1, 2010.

  1. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer
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    Steamboat Bill, Jr.

     

    Studio:Kino International
    Year: 1928
    US Rating: Not Rated
    Film Length: 70 Mins
    Aspect Ratio: 1080p High Definition – B&W
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Uncompressed 2.0 Stereo
    Subtitles:

     

     

    Introduction

     

    Though drastically underappreciated today, cinema’s Silent Era was a foundational period and contains films that remain today, extraordinary visual feats of storytelling; engaging and entertaining equal to any other era in film. As many know, silent films do not have synchronized audio and so during their heyday, the filmic form employed intertitles to set the scene, or provide dialogue, and live performances of piano and orchestra, featuring fully improvised or classically drawn pieces, to supply the ‘score’. The music, often improvised, was in many ways a transitional element of theater and cinema – but that would change with D.W Griffiths Birth of a Nation, noted for being a big-budgeted epic, which was taken to theaters with a score specifically designed to be used during its exhibition.

     

    1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first ‘talkie’ feature with audio synched to the film, effectively ushered in the end of the silent era, extinguishing that form of celluloid art completely within ten years. But during its reign, the Silent Era created ageless names of cinema, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and a personal favorite of mine, Harold Lloyd. These actors, with miraculous and meritorious physical capabilities, amazed with their unique abilities; dexterous, daring, dazzling, and dynamic.

     

     

    The Film: 4.5 out of 5

     

    Buster Keaton stars as William Canfield, Jr., a young college attendee who heads back to his southern roots to join his father, the captain of a run-down steamboat (played with superb gruffness by Ernest Torrence). It has been years since young Canfield has seen his father, and from the moment he steps off the train and persists in mistaking different people as his father (while his father watches on in unhidden disappointment and frustration), the tone is set for their uneasy relationship, and young Canfields obvious dysfunction at the helm of any boat. In town, Canfield sees his sweetheart from years before and a passing courtship is rekindled.  Awkwardly, his love interest (played by the lovely Marion Byron) is the daughter of his father’s main rival on the river; the rivalry, which has his father being dwarfed by the lush new riverboat operated by a smug and unpleasant man, creates problems for the young lovers and endless opportunities for Canfield and physical strife. Rivalry, jail, clumsiness and the calamity of natural disasters (the legendary hurricane sequences), create a monumental achievement in Keaton’s career in this, the last independent feature that Keaton was to make.

     

    Steamboat Bill Jr. is simply put, a classic of American cinema; a tireless onslaught of visual marvel, ever-increasing gag splendor, and the magnificent and top-of-his-game Keaton in full pursuit of pushing the bar for what can be accomplished in his uniquely and triumphantly deadpan realm of comedy. The pace of the film remains in full swing, but segues effortlessly into overdrive during the extraordinary hurricane sequence that caps the energetic tale. Shot in Sacramento, California, over $135,000 worth of breakaway sets were built to help create the grand scale destruction of the town as Keaton weaves his way through. Hoisted from cables to create the appearance of being swept by the strong forces of the wind, Keaton’s passion for incredible stunts seemed to know no end. The most incredible moment in the entire film (and some may say his entire career), is the legendary stunt that Keaton performed with no special effects. As his Canfield character stands beside a building being tugged by the gale force winds, the building’s façade falls, on its way to crush an oblivious Keaton. Only the small upstairs, empty attic window frame, which falls around a standing-still Keaton, saves him from being squashed. The result is astonishing. Though Keaton performed a similar stunt years earlier in the short film One Week, the sheer audacity of this stunt can cause a gasp even today. This stunt has been parodied and copied many times since, the most recent example coming from an episode of USA’s comedy series, Psych, where Shawn and Gus, in full cowboy gear, stand nervously close to each other as a building façade falls around them (I cannot tell if it is a visual effect, though I suspect that it is).

     

    The film is credited to be directed by Charles Reisner, though Buster Keaton himself is often considered listed as the uncredited director. The film was produced by Joseph M. Shenck and the terrific cinematography by Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings. The film as distributed by United Artists and release on May 12, 1928, and stands as a remarkable achievement not only in cinema from the silent era, but cinema in general. As noted on the cover sleeve for this release, films made during the silent era were commonly created with separate negatives of the film, each with different angles for shots. This Blu-ray release contains an entirely different version of the film with numerous different angles of scenes.

     

     

     

    The Video:  4 out of 5

     

    As I noted in my review of Kino’s similarly outstanding release of Keaton’s The General, Kino International provides Steamboat Bill, Jr., in a spectacular looking Blu-ray presentation that has been ‘Mastered in HD from a 35mm archive material’.

     

    Although the level of print damage is more noticeable on this film (compared to the stunningly clean The General), the quality of this image is the best this film has ever looked in the modern era. It has been presented full frame (1.33:1) in accordance with its theatrical presentations, the amount of detail in the image is simply wonderful.  Again, there is a level of dust and dirt noticeable, but a far diminished amount compared to other released of this film. The level of contrast, detail, care, and faithfulness of this presentation is indeed praiseworthy.

     

     

     

    The Sound: 4.5 out of 5

     

    Kino International must again be applauded for the terrific audio options available. In addition to the marvelous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track containing music provided by the Biograph Players, also included is the organ score by Lee Erwin, and piano score by William Perry.

     

    The music in silent era films is even more pivotal than the underscore used in film today. As an avid film score collector (I have hundreds upon hundreds of scores from Korngold and Herrmann classics to modern triumphs by Zimmer, Horner, Williams, Goldsmith and more), I was acutely aware of power of the music – all three options – used here. The audio is clean, with oomph where needed and an enveloping spirit, and is thoroughly enjoyable.

     

     

     

    The Extras: 4 out of 5

     

    Alternate Version: A complete alternate version of Steamboat Bill, Jr., comprised entirely of variant takes and camera angles

     

    3 Music scores:Select from the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track performed by the Biograph Players (with C. Edward Hupton in piano, John Francis on percussion, and Joe Kerr on synthesizer), the organ score by Lee Erwin, or the piano score by William Perry.

     

    Documentary on the making of Steamboat Bill, Jr.:This is quite a good look at the making of the film, with some revealing insights and doting appreciation of this gem from the silent era.

     

    Stills Gallery:A number of images – including stills, promotional materials and more.

     

    “Why They Call Him Buster”:A musical montage of pratfalls and stunts.

     

    Vintage Recordings:Two vintage recordings of the folk song “Steamboat Bill”

     

     

     

    Final Thoughts

     

    Along with Buster Keaton’s The General, which was a classic among classics, Steamboat Bill, Jr., has been heralded as a landmark in silent film. Like The General, it was underappreciated upon its initial release, but has grown to be appreciated for its strident stunt work and the exploitation of the cumulative experience of Keaton’s extraordinary comic timing and flair to go beyond safety for the money shot.

     

    Kino International is quickly becoming one of the most faithful and respectful preservers of great cinema with their dedication to presenting great cinematic accomplishments from a bygone era with the art of the cinema, and the demands of a connoisseur audience at the forefront of their mission. Bravo – this release is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

     

     

    Overall Score 4.5 out of 5

     

    Neil Middlemiss

    Kernersville, NC 

     
  2. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    Is this the same as the US release on Kino? Because I have this disk and the image is quite washed out with no blacks. The music doesn't sync with the film well and it's missing a crucial song that is called for on the screen. The DVD in the Keaton box set had both better picture and better music. Did the reviewer compare the bluray to that?
     
  3. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer
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    This is the US release from earlier this year. I have not compared it to the DVD release, but disagree with your assessment of the image quality. I did a quick check to see how others viewed the audio and video quality, and perhaps the best site is DVDBEaver (see the link below), who seem to affirm my assessment.


    http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/blu-ray_reviews51/steamboat_bill_jr_blu-ray.htm
     
  4. Russell G

    Russell G Fake Shemp
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    I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I've never seen a Buster Keaton film. Having been blown away by the just released Metropolis and it's 5.1 orchestral score, I may blind buy this one and give it a shot. Silent films and surround sound are a match made in heaven. :)


    Great review!
     
  5. Paul Penna

    Paul Penna Supporting Actor

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    I agree with Bigshot about the image often being overly bright and deficient in blacks. I can overcome this somewhat with my projector's alternate gamma selections, but the issue isn't consistent, so one setting won't work for the whole film. The score didn't impress me greatly, and again, Bigshot is on the money about them completely missing "The Prisoner's Song" at the point when it's explicitly referenced onscreen. I think it's not on the same level as Kino's The General, but I'm still giving it a qualified "I'm mostly pleased."
     
  6. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    That's too bad about the missing song.


    RE: the PQ, I actually thought it's more film-like than The General -- though I'm admittedly not that familiar w/ B&W silent films and had never seen any Keaton films before these BDs. The General BD seems to be plagued by excessive EE w/ thick halos/forcefields -- or at least that's what it looked like to me -- unless it's actually some other issue yielding that look. Also, IIRC, it has significantly less detail (and film grain) than this BD. Yeah, the image for this one does look like it *might* be a bit too bright and blown out in places, but it's fine w/ plenty of sharp detail and decent contrast (for the most part) otherwise -- and the less "clean" look didn't bother me at all. To me, this definitely looks better than The General on BD.

     
  7. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    So you were basing your comment that this film has never looked this good on another review that also didn't compare it to the DVD. Well, I own both the DVD and the bluray, and although the bluray is a bit sharper, the DVD has better contrast and a much better score. Kino's Sherlock Jr and The General are very good and are a definite improvement over the DVD, but this one isn't nearly as good as it should be. I suspect that many reviewers and commenters who speak about silent film on the Internet are coming to these films for the first time. They're so impressed that a silent film can look good, they don't stop to compare to figure out whether other releases might be more complete or in better transfers. The quality of the film print, the people composing the score and the telecine are infinitely more important with silent film than whether it is 1080p or 5:1 sound. Those who have been interested in silent films for any length of time know that the devil is in the details and no two video releases are alike. I read a review... It may have been on this site... that criticized The Three Ages because it was interlaced rather than progressive. I can't believe a person reviewing silent film for a home theater site that deals with these issues all the time wouldn't know that it is impossible to do a progressive transfer of a film that wasn't shot at a consistent 24 frames per second. Bluray players aren't capable of presenting 18 or 19 fps progressive.
     
  8. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    I'm not sure what your abbreviations mean. I screened The General on a ten foot screen and it looked better than I have ever seen it before. Perhaps you're referring to the look of wet gate transfers. They are generally a little less sharp and have some minute ringing around scratches, but they have much less of a problem with scratches and pitted dirt.
     
  9. dana martin

    dana martin Cinematographer

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    in reference to The General, for its age, its one of the best presentations i have on Blu, i dont see any of the issues that was mentioned
     
  10. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    EE = edge enhancement


    Maybe the haloing somehow blends into the image better on a 10ft screen (at close distance), but it was definitely jumping out at me on my 61" DLP (from ~9ft away) more so than such artifacts usually do. And yes, I easily noticed the EE/halos upon my first viewing of The General BD (before ever seeing mention of that on the net).


    Also, a quick look at screencaps from the DVDBeaver review reminded me that whites are a bit blownout on The General too. It's just that there are generally less whites (and bright grays) in The General than in Steamboat Bill, Jr, so the (blownout) effect is probably not as noticeable to some viewers. And no, blacks (and dark grays) in The General BD aren't all that dark either, but there are more of them.


    Actually, maybe the problem is not quite so much EE (in the usual sense) as contrast boosting, which is related to EE. Could be some type of local contrast enhancement applied too heavyhandedly. That would explain the type of thick halos/forcefields (and blownout whites) showing up -- and also lack of much detail in darker areas.


    _Man_
     
  11. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    Blown out whites when the subject is in shadow isn't a transfer problem. Film stock back then didn't have as wide a latitude as modern film so skies sometimes went white. The problem with Steamboat Bill Jr is gray blacks. You can see it in the DVD Beaver frame grabs quite clearly. It looks even worse on the screen. There is a stark difference between the blacks in the image and the black of the bars at the sides of the screen framing it in.
     
  12. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    I understand there was less latitude back then, but both films were shot around the same time. Anyway, the same issue you mentioned for Steamboat Bill, Jr. exists for The General. The General also had gray blacks (although it's sepia toned "grays/blacks" during daylight scenes on the BD). The main diff is The General has a mostly dark image while Steamboat Bill, Jr. is the opposite. But in both cases, there aren't much of any deep blacks on the BD while the whites are blown out. I see no real diff between the two in this regard.



    Hmmm... Judging by the DVDBeaver screencaps, Steamboat Bill, Jr. probably has some EE applied as well, but it's not as noticeable to me in motion on my display -- maybe that's due in part to the general brightness of the image and the greater amount of detail (and grain). There certainly isn't the same type of thick haloing that's in The General.


    _Man_
     
  13. ManW_TheUncool

    ManW_TheUncool Producer

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    Hmmm... Looks like the Sherlock Jr/Three Ages BD will also have similar PQ issues judging from the blu-ray.com review.


    _Man_
     
  14. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    I've got all three blurays and the Keaton DVD box set. Sherlock Jr on bluray has decent blacks. It's sharper and more detailed than the DVD and the musical score is a million times better than the awful Clubfoot Orchestra score that the DVD is saddled with. Both the bluray and DVD versions of the General are good, but the bluray has more detail to make the wide landscape shots look better. I like the tinting too. By the way, tinting usually does raise the blacks a bit, but it isn't a problem like when they transfer too light. The DVD of Steamboat Bill Jr has both better image with a full range of grays and real blacks; and better sound with one of the best orchestral soundtracks for a silent comedy that I have ever heard. The bluray has the edge in sharpness, but the mediocre score and washed out look doesn't do it justice. I love Steamboat Bill Jr. It's one of my favorite films, but I was having trouble sitting through it about halfway through the bluray. I'd say the blurays of The General and Sherlock Jr are worth getting and Steamboat Bill Jr would be better to get on DVD. The Three Ages is pretty much identical on bluray and DVD. The Surviving print of that title isnt in as good shape as the others, so the advantages of the bluray format are limited. There is a review from someone who's watched the various versions of these films. Better than a review based on other reviews.
     
  15. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer
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    Absolutely. I studied film in England, where we explored the silent film era in great detail. I watched a wealth of silent films, including this film, and through the years have seen different iterations of a number of the silent films we studied in college - including this one. I was not sent the DVD version to review, I was sent the blu-ray, and though an ideal world would allow for reviewers to have seen every version ever released of a film, that isn't possible. Where possible, you will find reviewers on HTF compare to previous version, either by direct comparison, conversations amongst ourselves, or research to help place in context the most recent release version.


    Of all the versions I have ever seen of this film, this is the best looking, which is a valid assessment. I can find no other commentary that suggests the DVD version looks better, outside of your comment. I don't doubt your assessment as you have seen on your display. On my display, with my calibration (performed by LION AV), I simply see the quality of this release different.


     
  16. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer
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    You will find no reviews on HTF that are "based on other reviews" if that is what you were alluding to.


     
  17. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    Of all the versions you've seen, whose score do you prefer? My projector is well calibrated, thank you.
     
  18. Neil Middlemiss

    Neil Middlemiss Producer
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    I am partial to the Lee Erwin organ score, as I believe it was the score used on the version when I saw this film for the first time. I typically enjoy piano only scores the most (likely because it is the instrument that I play personally), but was not that keen on the William Perry piano score available on this release.



     
  19. bigshot

    bigshot Cinematographer

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    That helps me understand which version you've seen. Those are the scores on Kino's current DVD. The Kino bluray definitely is an improvement on Kino's DVD release, but it's working from the same film sources, so the difference is mostly one of resolution due to the bluray format.


    Gaylord Carter's organ score is the one that's on the Image DVD/LD/VHS releases (except for one DVD I know of with an Alloy Orchestra score, which isn't quite as good) and also on Kino's 1999 DVD. The Carter score for Steamboat Bill Jr is a drop dead classic and is the most popular version among most silent fans. Along with Israel and Davis, Carter's scores are consistently among the best. These releases all come from a different source which has been produced for video by David Shepard, who consistently does the best job of assembling and transferring the most complete and best looking prints of silent films. His recent Chaplin Keystone set is a revelation. I'd recommend that if you like silents, look for his name on the box. You'll see better what I'm talking about.
     
  20. Neil Middlemiss

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    I remember seeing a French version while I was still living in the UK. I remember the score was different, and it may have been the Gaylord version. I'll have to get in touch with some of my college friends and see if they recall the French version...


     

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