The Boat is another one of my favorite shorts from this period. Unlike Keaton’s other shorts, and even his features, in The Boat, he is a family man, accompanied on his misadventures by a wife (Sybil Seely) and two little sons in look-a-like porkpie hats. I like to view the family in The Boat as an extension of the Buster-Sybil marriage in One Week. Instead of the couple building a house, Buster has now built another fool-hardy project, a boat. Faithful, ever-patient Sybil is still at his side, now joined by the couple's two trouble-making sons. The added element of the family gives Buster more bits of comic business, more props and also an extra element of pathos—it’s one thing for a single man to get into the trouble Buster does, but it’s another to disregard the safety of one’s family. It also adds a hint of black comedy to the picture, as I’ll clarify later.
The plot is simple: Buster builds a boat, The Damfino, of which he is very proud, but which is not very seaworthy, to say the least. He takes his family out on a boating trip (having demolished their house while towing the boat out of the garage--oops!) and while launching the boat into the harbor, he manages to ruin their car as well. A life on the sea it is! Having outfitted the boat with collapsible fixtures, Buster can maneuver under bridges with just a flick of a switch. That doesn't, however, protect them from a fearsome storm. It batters poor Buster all around his cabin. He tries to radio for help, which elicits the following exchange between Buster and the telegraph operator:
Ha! We laugh in spite of ourselves. Buster and his nice young family are doomed to drown, but at least now we know the correct pronunciation of "Damfino."
That bleak joke is the topper on a series of ill-omened gags. For one thing, when Sybil tries to christen the boat with a coke bottle, the bottle doesn't break and the hull sustains damage. Never a good sign. When Buster launches The Damfino, it majestically slides into the ocean, sinking straight into the deep, never even bothering to attempt to float. Strike two.
The anchor floats. While trying to hang up a painting, Buster springs a leak. Not even the galley is safe--Sybil's pancakes are so rubbery and inedible, Buster uses it to plug the hole in the hull.
During the storm, Buster nails his shoe to the floor so he won't get tossed around the cabin. Instead, he's tumbled around like a sock in the washer. To achieve this effect, the set was built inside on a rocking gimbal, producing an effect which is similar to the carnival ride, The Rotor.
Despite his best efforts, The Damfino is sinking. Buster gathers up his family in the lifeboat (a tiny bathtub) and plunges them into the rollicking sea. Buster decides, like a worthy seaman, to go down with the ship. We watch as The Damfino sinks into the inky deep, along with Buster, until we just see his porkpie hat bobbing on the waves. His family thinks he's perished (and so do we), until--pop! Buster emerges under his porkpie, and swims back to the already crowded tub.
But wait! What's this? Buster can walk! It's land! The family strides hand in hand through the darkness until the picture shows they've reached a beach. Buster and Sybil look around. Where are we? she asks. Buster looks left, looks right, looks at us. Damfino, he mouths. The End.
The Boat represents one of Buster's best film scenarios: the giant prop-driven comedy. A natural precursor to The Navigator, The Boat is both more intimate, more dangerous, and much, much darker. Although Buster is brave, valiant and self-sacrificing, he's also an idiot. He causes more harm than good to his family and with their lives at stake, the laughs are suddenly undercut with a real element of bitter cynicism. In One Week, the couple's bad luck is unfortunate but not catastrophic--they walk of hand in hand towards (it's implied) a brighter future. The ending of The Boat is literally dark (taking place at night), barren, and completely unknown. Buster's ignorance is typified by his final comment (Damfino = damned, if I know). In the course of twenty minutes, his ineptitude, however well-intentioned, has robbed him and his family of a house, a car, and a boat. The film is one of Keaton's funniest, certainly his darkest, and something of an anomaly in his filmography. It's definitely worth your time.
So, that was 1921. Six great Buster Keaton comedies, and two more years of shorts to go until we get to features (finally!). See you next time for the year that was...1922.