Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: The Navigator (1924)

The Navigator (1924)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Donald Crisp.
Written by: Clyde Bruckman & Joseph A. Mitchell and Jean C. Havez.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Rollo Treadway), Kathryn McGuire (Betsy O'Brien), Frederick Vroom (John O'Brien).

The Navigator was the biggest hit of Keaton’s career – really the film that made him a bigger star, got him an extended contact and the clout to make the type of bigger films – like the upcoming The General – that he really wanted to make. It is still considered one of Keaton’s masterpieces - it is one of the seven Keaton features to make the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They top 1,000 films of all-time list. Yet even though I think it is hilarious in many parts, it has never really been close to the top of my favorite Keaton films. It is a notch or two below the likes of Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr. or The General. The film is non-stop, inventive sight gags from beginning to end – and yet I think that sometimes its comic momentum lags a little bit – set pieces drag on a little too long, nowhere more than near the end the conflict with the natives which has multiple stages – and every time you think it’s reached its endpoint, it just keeps going. For many comedic directors, The Navigator would rank as their best film – with Keaton, as great as the film is, it isn’t really close.

Keaton plays pampered millionaire Rollo Treadway who, as the title cards tell us, is proof that “every family tree has its sap”. He isn’t very bright – he looks out the window one day and see a couple getting married and decides he wants to do that too – and today! He has his manservant book his honeymoon cruise to the Pacific, and then heads across the street to ask Betsy (Kathryn O’Brien) to marry him – and she promptly rejects him. Later that night, he’ll head down to the docks to take his honeymoon anyway – and gets on the wrong boat. She also heads down to the docks to talk to him – and gets stuck on the same boat. It turns out that the large ocean liner is being used as a pawn in a war between two small European nations – one who just bought the boat, and the other who wants to ensure they never get to use it – so they cut the boat loose. When Keaton and McGuire wake up the next day – after an hilarious sequence where they keep barely missing each other - they discover they are the only two on board. As both are spoiled rich kids, they have no idea how to do anything – making coffee out of seawater for example. But eventually, the two have the ship humming (in a nod to Keaton’s short film, The Scarecrow, he has the kitchen made up with a series of pulleys to make everything go much easier).

There is nothing wrong with the visual gags in The Navigator – all of which are expertly handled, from Keaton and McGuire constantly missing each other on that first morning, to them screwing up breakfast, to a sequence where they both think, for differing reasons, the ship is haunted, to various daring water rescues and falls to their extended conflict with a tribe of cannibals – including an hilarious sequence where Keaton pulls around a small cannon by his foot. The best sequence may well be Keaton underwater, in one of those huge deep sea diving suits, which includes a sequence so ridiculous it borders on the sublime – when he uses one sword fish to fence with another. The chemistry between Keaton and McGuire in this film is perhaps the best of any film Keaton made (although I admit that could be because I think McGuire is absolutely adorable in her sailor suit). In many of Keaton’s films, the girl just seems to love him for no apparent reason – here we see her slowly fall for Keaton, as his stone faced, dogged determination finally wins her over when he’s not trying to.

Yet the best Keaton films, I think, are more than just a series of gags – they use the plot to enhance those gags, and that’s where I think The Navigator is a notch of two below Keaton’s very best. The film never seems like anything more than just a series of isolated sight gags – so it never quite builds the same momentum his best films do. Throw in the fact that the end of the film is basically a deus ex machine that Keaton and company came up when they realized they had written themselves into a corner and had no way of getting out, and the film just doesn’t quite seem as great as Keaton’s best.

But punishing a film like The Navigator, which in so many ways is inventive and hilarious, simply for not quite being as good as Keaton’s best work doesn’t quite seem fair. This is still a wonderful film – just not quite as good as the best comedies made by the arguably the best director of comedy in film history. When you look at it like that, that hardly seems like an insult at all.

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