Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Navigator (1924)

The Navigator (Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton, 1924) Give Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton a prop and he would make full use of it.  In the case of The Navigator, the prop is a grand stage—a passenger/cargo ship called the USAT Buford that the comedian utilized stem to stern, with all hands (and tails and all body parts in-between) on deck.

Co-directed by actor Donald Crisp (who has a brief cameo as the portrait of the ship's captain—and, yes, it was used as a "bit"), who, it seemed, was determined to make the film dramatic, it's the story of an awkward young man, the well-to-do Rollo Treadway (Keaton, of course), who is determined to marry the girl of his dreams, the equally inept Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire), if only she wouldn't reject him as a bad prospect. 

Of course, she does.

To mend his broken heart, Rollo decides to go, by himself, on the honeymoon cruise to Hawaii he'd intended to take his bride.  Complications (as they are wont to do) arise and as Fate and luck would have it, both Betsy and Rollo are stranded on the same ship as it is set adrift by spies out to sea in the Pacific Ocean, carrying (what co-screenwriter Jean Havez called) "the most helpless people in the world" on a pilot-less ocean-going vessel.

It is always a personal joy to watch Buster Keaton and his films, especially when he is the captain of his fate (that is, behind the camera—his characters are usually victims of fate, despite their abilities, however clumsy or clever, to deal with it). With an entire ship as his stage, he can be depended to find a wealth of comedic possibilities throughout, whether it's set in the ship's galley, cockpit, fo'csle or funnel. Everything is fair game. Everything is a potential prop, and Keaton's ability to make the most of it...and display his amazing body of stunt-work...infuses his films with fun and not a little awe at what he can do, seemingly effortlessly.

Magic lantern presentation of secret desire—
a poignant visual joke that lasts all of two seconds
The fact is the ship is under its own power and Keaton and McGuire are merely passengers (although they could be considered cargo), irrelevant to the path it is taking, carried along aimlessly.  And so complete are the comedic opportunities aboard ship, it takes a considerable amount of screen-time to introduce an element not to be found on-board to complicate things.  That takes the form of an island inhabited by cannibals (near Catalina??) that provides a fourth quarter filled with threatening boarding parties, loose cannons on deck and a wild escape and rescue by a leaky dinghy.  Combatants on all sides end up being all wet.
A comment, ladies and gentlemen, of the profligacy and privilege
of the wealthy as it appeared in 1924.
It's also a funny joke.
There are wonderful sequences throughout, including a deep-sea diving adventure (that's less than water-tight), some sleepless episodes with a "ghost," a hapless cooking and dining sequence, and—my favorite—an extended (and increasingly paced) run around the ship where the two castaways—suspecting someone else is aboard—chase each other, missing seeing the other by split-seconds, between decks, through doorways, around the promenade; the choreography is precise and intricate with mounting tension as the search becomes faster and more desperate.  It only increases the comedy when the meeting happens and all that effort snaps.  That compounded escalation is only one of the reasons I enjoy every opportunity to watch one of the films of Buster Keaton.
Problem: how do you climb a ladder with one hand?
Or do you drop the girl?
Decisions, decisions...
If you have an hour, The Navigator is embedded below.

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