The famous final scene of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. depicts a small river town being tarnished by a cyclone. Its buildings are easily destroyed through the cyclone’s might, and inhabitants struggle to survive in its wake. The most expensive comedy yet made upon release, this nearly 100 year-old film drew audiences particularly because of its momentous final scene.
The relevance of Keaton’s silent film masterpiece is not in spite of its old age, but because of it. Its major achievement is its relation to climate change without being a product of actual environmental threat. According to Jennifer Fay, Keaton’s “films fascinate not only because they depict calamitous weather; his shoot itself occasions the production of this weather” (Fay 2014, 28). What Steamboat Bill Jr. therefore reveals at a very early stage, is how environmental disaster is both a threat to and by human beings. As Fay concludes: “Modernist weather in Keaton’s films is itself both the sign and symptom of human self-destruction […] slapstick’s environmental comedy acknowledges both our vulnerability to, and agency over, the climates of our own making” (Fay 2014, 45-46).