Buster Keaton’s riverbank footsteps – Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Buster Keaton filmed his final independent production Steamboat Bill, Jr. on location in Sacramento. The movie opens with an elegant scene filmed at the tip of what is now Discovery Park, slowly panning right to left from the American river viewed east, to the Sacramento River viewed north, then west, as a new steamboat puffs downstream towards a pier crowded with a cheering mob, introducing the fictional town of River Junction (see below). Keaton built these extensive sets standing along the west riverbank barely a mile from the State Capitol Building. As explained further below, you can stroll the riverbank today and stand exactly where Buster staged his most famous scenes.

Click to enlarge – composite view west of most of Buster’s riverbank set, depicting two of its three “intersections.” The famous collapsing house was built to the far left, after this publicity photo was taken, suggesting the idea for the stunt came later to Buster – The Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Room, Sacramento Public Library

A true Keaton masterpiece, and highly entertaining, Steamboat Bill, Jr. has been inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, and is perhaps best remembered for its thrilling cyclone scene where the side of a house falls atop Buster like a giant flyswatter, sparing his life with an open window. Yet with diminutive Buster (5’ 5”) casting towering character actor Ernest Torrence (6’ 4”) to play his cantankerous father, their delightful, mismatched interplay provides many of the film’s most satisfying laughs.

Marion Bryon drives south along the primary block of town toward the corner of the King Hotel at left

Click to enlarge, the west riverbank set across from the tip of Discovery Park – Flight C_163, Frame C-2 1928 UCSB

Remarkably, it’s possible today to visit Discovery Park, and to stroll along the west bank of the Sacramento River where Buster built his giant town set. This circa 1928 photo above actually shows footprints of the three “River Junction” street corner intersections. Perhaps some expert geo-referencer can pinpoint the precise locations.

Click to enlarge – looking west – the full length of the set, from the collapsing house, built later during filming, at the far left, then corner (1) the Hotel King, then corner (2) where Buster dodges a truck load of boxes in the stiff wind, and corner (3) near the jail set (cartoon), built on the water at the far right.

Click to enlarge – looking north, at corner (2) where Marion speeds into view, and Buster fights the wind and a truck load of boxes, and further north, at back, the corner (3) balcony near the jail.

Corner (1) the Hotel King, Corner (2) and Corner (3) further back, and the jail at the far end of the block – all once real

Nearly a century later, Steamboat Bill, Jr. remains visually stunning. Though modest in scale compared to modern-day computer-generated mayhem, Keaton’s cinematic destruction will always be compelling because it is real. You sense the groan of the tearing lumber, feel the blast of dust and splinters blown through the air, and cringe for Buster’s safety. There’s a shock, a sense of witnessing newsreel footage of an actual calamity, because tangible buildings are literally destroyed before the camera.

1928 view north of the riverbank set site across from the tip of Discovery Park, where dark American river joins the Sacramento River – Flight C_163, Frame C-2 1928 UCSB

Here is my new video about SBJ on my YouTube Channel.

Also, a simple slideshow first hosted back in 2011, one of my earliest blog posts. The slide show images are static.

The western bank filming site, apparently state-owned land, is most easily reached by walking north from the Marina Way River Access. I welcome people visiting the site to share photos.

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9 Responses to Buster Keaton’s riverbank footsteps – Steamboat Bill, Jr.

  1. Bill Counter says:

    Lovely! Thanks, John.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Borgen says:

    I was there in July – and it often FELT like the same area where scenes were filmed — thanks for another great time travel post for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rangerdon says:

    Were not a few scenes filmed downriver in “the Mississippi of California”? Between Sacramento and Rio Vista, say around Locke?

    And, as always, an excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed your write-up — I’ve been meaning to watch Steamboat Bill, Jr., but I haven’t yet, and your post makes me even more interested. I’m also curious to see Ernest Torrence; I recently read in an old movie magazine that he was slated to appear with Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, but I learned that he not only wasn’t in the cast, but died a few years later. I look forward to seeing Keaton and Torrence in this!


  5. Ken Mitchroney says:

    Outstanding John. We need to go back, update our pictures and enjoy a meal on the Delta King.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wendell Huffman says:

    In his “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s LIfe”, James Curtis says the railroad scene in SBJ was filmed at Freeport. The Cal-Western Life building (in downtown Sacramento, built in 1925) is visible in the background in scenes looking south from the “jail”. Curtis goes into some detail on the setup for the collapsing-house scene. Originally the town was to be destroyed by a flood, but the terrible Mississippi flood had just occurred, and there was concern that a flood in the movie would be in bad taste, so they came up with the windstorm. Curtis says it was so tense in filming that scene of the wall falling that many could not stand to watch, and two extras fainted. The window was designed to miss by 2 inches all around. The hinged wall was built on the ground so they knew exactly where it would land, and two nails in the ground marked where Keaton was to stand. There were no wind machines pointing at the wall.

    Anyone know what riverboats were used?

    Liked by 1 person

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