The Navigator Reviews
- I loved this film. I am not as familiar with Buster Keaton as I am with Chaplin, so wanted to see some more of his stuff. Glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Some really great slapstick here. Highly recommended!
There are some chuckles in this slapstick, silent comedy, and Buster Keaton once again proves himself a master of the young medium. Though there aren't many moments like the amazing stunts of College and The General, Keaton prat falls his way through the shifting ship and an underwater sequence.
The film didn't show its antiquity until the "cannibals" appear. Black natives attack Keaton's character, and I was again found myself wishing that Keaton's films were more progressive than their times, just as I did with The General. The portrayal of black characters leaves much to be desired, and it ruined the film for me.
Overall, this isn't as well made as Keaton's other films, and the outdated views of minorities made the film more difficult to enjoy.
I refuse to get into the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd debate. I think Charlie Chaplin's later movies, the ones after the advent of sound, are the best, but if you're just looking at silent comedies, and probably short subjects at that, which you like best is largely based on what you're looking for in a film comedian. And in fact, what I'm usually looking for in a comedian is wordplay, so I'd rather watch a Marx Brothers talkie than any of them. Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of Harold Lloyd, who I think was less skilled than his counterparts, but I can see the appeal to all three for those who are interested in that sort of thing. This is not one of those places where I think there is a definitive right and wrong, so it's not where I'll get on my film snob high horse. And really, I think we should all just agree that they're better than the Three Stooges or the Little Rascals and move on.
There is a setup to [i]The Navigator[/i], but I'm not entirely sure it matters. Just as it does not matter that Buster Keaton has a character name, but if you care, it's Rollo Treadway. He has decided that he wants to get married, so he orders two tickets to Hawaii and asks his girl, Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire), to marry him. He learns that he should have done that in the opposite order when she rejects him, leaving him with an extra ticket. In despair, he decides to go alone; he cannot face getting up early enough to get the the ship before it sails, so he goes down to the dock and spends the night before on the boat. Only it's the wrong boat. It is a steamer belonging, I think, to Betsy's father, John (Frederick Vroom, which is indeed a stage name; he added the "k" to the end of his name), and there are secret agents, and I didn't understand what happened, but somehow, Buster and Betsy end up adrift alone on the ship. How and why really doesn't matter.
The whole thing came about because the [i]USAT Buford[/i], best known as the ship which deported Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, among others, in 1919, was being scrapped and Buster Keaton was able to get his hands on it cheap. The thing was just one big prop, but it was a real ship that they were able to frolic about on. The very idea delighted him. So it's literally true that the setup doesn't matter and the whole point was that they were messing about on the ship. That's not, for once, an expression of irritation but one of literal fact. No one cared how they got on the boat so long as there was a story which got them on the boat, not even Buster himself. I suppose this proves that, sometimes, that actually does work to bring about a movie worth watching. In fact, if I thought about it, I could probably come up with another list of "because that's what needs to happen" stories which I enjoy. I won't do so now, but if pestered, that's a thing I could do another day.
Really, how sound a sleeper is Betsy, though? There are all sorts of gags which rely on her being essentially comatose while Buster does whimsical things around her or carries her while she's pretty much stiff as a board. He rescues her from a deck chair that's about to go over the side, for example, and though the chair is performing all sorts of ludicrous gyrations before he gets her out of it, it's not until he has his arms around her that she wakes up, so she can then slap him. There's a bit of to-do about how the ship is supposedly haunted. Much of the movie is not, in other words, story so much as it is a series of gags strung together by the fact that they all take place on a boat. This includes a duel with the most obviously stuffed fish ever to appear in film--this filmed at Lake Tahoe--where Buster is holding one swordfish while battling off another one in a fencing sequence. You can see the wires holding the fish up so the duel can take place, but the scene is still kind of impressive given 1924.
Yes, there are jokes at Betsy's expense, but there are jokes at Buster's, too. The whole joke is that these two are too hopelessly sheltered to understand how things work. Their first morning on the ship, they're lucky not to die from the breakfast they've prepared for themselves. (Though I will say they should die later and more slowly, because there doesn't appear to be any water on the ship at first, and the water they later have is magic.) She puts a handful of coffee beans--unground--into an enormous pot which he fills with seawater. He boils eggs in an even bigger pot and should burn himself horribly by the way he handles everything. They are complete innocents, and it's supposed to be charming. I'm also quite sure that they don't intend anything untoward when she uses him as a boat late in the picture, though the imagery is a bit more adult than most of the rest of what's going on. Even on an innocent level, though, it was still pretty funny.