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.
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.
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.
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.
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.