Classic Scene: House Falling Gag
House Falling Gag
Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Directed by Charles Reisner (Buster Keaton uncredited)
The Scene: As a storm blows through town William Canfield Jr. AKA Steamboat Bill Jr. (Buster Keaton) is trying to recover in the local hospital. But the winds are so strong the actual building is blown away and Steamboat Bill is carried off in his bed. After being drug a while by the weather, the bed comes to a stop…..right in front of a house which is falling apart. While the owner of said house escapes at Bill’s expense, the young man can only get to his feet and try to figure out what to do next. As he does the entire face of the house falls completely over in his direction, but by chance he is standing right where the open window leaving the house to crash around him, but through a miracle leave him unscathed. While he may not know much about what is happening the bewildered man takes off lest something else happens.
The Breakdown: First and foremost, just like almost all of Keaton’s shorts and films during the heyday of his career HE was the creative force behind it all. The comedic actor even proclaimed that the credited screenwriter of Steamboat Bill Jr was “useless” and was only there because he was on the payroll. For a performer who had built a cinematic career on dangerous stunts, this scene would perhaps be his most dangerous. Before shooting, the crew had to be exact in marking off where the two ton structure would be falling, and the exact spot for “Old Stone Face” to stand so he would not be crushed. According to Hollywood legend, Keaton’s shoes were nailed down to the spot so that he would not be tempted to move even slightly off cue and risk his life. Though Buster Keaton had done may stunts before, in the shooting of this scene for Steamboat Bill Jr., his head was far from the right place. His alcoholism had been increasing, coinciding with his marriage falling apart. While battling these personal demons, he had learned his business partner Joseph M. Schenk had sold their production company to MGM, in effect taking away all of his creative freedom. According to those who knew Buster at this time, in his heart of hearts he went along with this dangerous feat because he had just given up and did not care what happened to him. As it stands the house falling has become one of the greatest gags in movie history. It has duplicated countless times in different movies and TV shows and it all originated with one of cinema’s original funny men.
Best Bit: The way Buster Keaton plays the obliviousness to the house facade falling on him. What makes this gag work is the fact that he is completely unaware that he is moments away from certain doom and he plays this off perfectly.