***SPOILERS, FOR YOU HEATHENS WHO HAVEN'T YET SEEN THIS MOVIE***
Many critics and scholars contend that Keaton was at his funniest and most brilliant in his silent comedy short films, and I happen to agree. While his feature films are certainly enjoyable, they don't pack in the laughs as thick and fast as his one- and two-reelers, and 'The Boat' is one of his two best, in my opinion (the other being 'One Week').
From beginning to end, the gags come in rapid-fire succession, from our first illusion of Buster in 'rough seas' to his final, silently-spoken pun, and what a series of gems they are. Any of the silent comedians could have built a boat too large to get out of their garage, and some of them would have come up with the idea to have it demolish the house when they try to pull it away. Only Buster, however, could play the tragedy with such a non-reaction. He walks stoically back to the wreckage, unearths the family bathtub to replace his boat's demolished lifeboat, walks back to his flivver and drives away, boat in tow.
If anything, the gags arrive TOO fast, in come cases (though that impression may only come from viewing a modern edit). Stan Laurel, genius of film editing that he was, timed the laughter of the audience at his previews, then went back and recut the film to lengthen certain shots so the laughs didn't overlap the next gag. Of course, this is less important in a Keaton silent than in a Laurel & Hardy talkie, but in my earliest viewings of this film, I actually missed some of the subtler gags because I was still reacting to the big knee-slapper which preceded it (for instance, after Buster has accidentally dumped one of his sons overboard, he throws the boy a life preserver, which sinks like a stone).
A key difference between this short and almost all of others is the presence of a leading lady who actually has a developed personality. Most of Buster's leading ladies were treated primarily as props and decorations, but Sybil Seely lets us know early on in the film that she's the long-suffering wife of a man who's a little absent from reality, and very little he does is going to surprise or upset her unduly.
This film contains what may be the single funniest and most iconic scene of the entire silent comedy genre: the launching. Once again, it's not just the gag itself, but Buster's reaction to it, that turns it from a funny sight gag into a hilarious, textured joke. As the boat is released and slides down the launching ramp, Buster standing firmly on the bow with his back to the camera, the ship proceeds to slide directly down under the water. Even as the water is slipping over his little ship, Buster determinedly stands rock-steady on the bow. The water passes over his shoes, and still he stands. The water reaches his waist, and he remains immobile. Only as the water reaches his chin does he suddenly seem to acknowledge the fact that his boat is sinking with him on it, and make an effort to escape.
If you've not been exposed to Keaton's masterpieces, this is a good film to start with. If you're already a fan, I suggest you use this film as the first Keaton film you show to your friends who are unfamiliar with him.
10 out of 10 found this helpful