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With each of his feature film projects Buster Keaton extended himself as a director, finding creative new ways to tailor his comedy talents to the capabilities of the cinema screen. It's puzzling that Keaton wasn't popularly recognized as the filmmaking equal of any director working, as his pictures abound with cinematic innovation. With his screen character already formed, Buster and his triumvirate of scenarists Clyde Bruckman, Joseph Mitchell and Jean Havez worked overtime to come up with film gags that were physically outrageous yet did not violate the laws of physics -- at least outside of dream sequences.
Keaton's previous feature Sherlock Jr. was an experiment in levels of cinematic reality, both human daydreams and dreams invaded by movie logic. For The Navigator Keaton returned to straight physical comedy, but on a grand scale. He built his gags around a very special prop, a 500-foot steamship that Buster and Co. purchased for $25,000. Keaton had already shown his love of boats in several popular short subjects, and for The Navigator he'd have an entire ship at his disposal.
The resulting film was one of Keaton's biggest hits and became one of his personal favorites. The story is purposely kept simple, to better concentrate on ten or so extended set-piece sequences. Aloof millionaire Rollo Treadway (Keaton) is so disconnected from the real world that he tries to bathe without disrobing. He uses his limousine (with chauffeur and footman) to cross the street. Rollo rather thoughtlessly gets the notion to marry, and when his neighbor/girlfriend Betsy (Kathryn McGuire) answers his poker-faced proposal with a short "No", he decides to go on a cruise. Before ten minutes of film have unspooled, Rollo and Betsy find themselves alone on an empty ship, the Navigator, set adrift by foreign spies (who are never seen again). The fun then starts in earnest, with the couple having difficulty finding each other on the vast decks, and trying to cook a meal in facilities meant to serve a thousand people. When night falls Rollo becomes convinced that the ship is haunted. Just as they're getting the hang of life aboard an ocean liner for two, the Navigator runs aground on an island populated by fierce cannibals. When Rollo goes below in a diving suit to free the ship, the natives cut his air hoses and seize Kathryn!
Much of The Navigator can be termed slapstick comedy, yet Buster Keaton's approach can only be described as elegant. His extended comedy sequences are so original in conception and sophisticated in technique that they can hardly be called gags. Rollo and Betsy search for each other on the multi-level decks, climbing stairs and turning corners. They repeatedly just manage to miss each other by a fraction of a second. Keaton slowly accelerates the near-miss hilarity until they're both running at full tilt. When Rollo finally catches up, crashing to the floor next to Kathryn, it's the first time he's seen her since she turned down his proposal. Without hesitation he tries again: "Will you marry me?" After a fruitless attempt to boil an egg in what must be a 50-gallon cauldron, Rollo fabricates a Rube Goldbergian set of devices to help cook their meals.
Keaton gets just as many laughs from the smaller gags. Betsy and Rollo find themselves on the opposite ends of a rope, so that when one of them is safely high and dry the other is being dunked in the ocean. An even funnier instance sees Rollo trying to place an unconscious Betsy in a folding lounge chair, one that seems designed to collapse with every use.
The experts have pointed out that Keaton's Rollo Treadway character has similarities to Bertie, the pampered-rich dunce he played in his first feature appearance, The Saphead. The difference is that Rollo proves a resourceful and creative technical thinker, even if many of his ideas go wrong. Bertie is a clueless dolt saved only by crazy luck. Rollo takes his destiny, foolish as it may be, into his own hands.
Keaton shared directorial credit more than once, but on The Navigator his official co-director Donald Crisp parted company soon into production. Crisp is better known as an actor in a number of John Ford films. None of Crisp's work remains in the picture, but his familiar face shows up in the 'nightmare' sequence as a scowling painting that Rollo thinks is a phantom sailor. Leading lady Kathryn McGuire is a carry-over from Sherlock, Jr.. She proves to be a perfect foil: ladylike in all situations yet capable of taking all manner of physical abuse. One reason the story works so well is that McGuire's Betsy is in her way just as pampered and helpless as Rollo. They're perfectly paired as sweethearts marooned together on this strange cruise to nowhere in particular.
It seems possible that Rollo's fight with the invading cannibals inspired a memorable scene in Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Some of Keaton's films use racial stereotypes in gags that aren't malicious yet haven't aged well. In The Navigator Keaton presents an entire black tribe without resorting to 'darkie' humor. The cannibal king is played by Noble Johnson, a noted friend and associate of both Keaton and Lon Chaney. A decade later Johnson portrayed the imposing native chief in King Kong.
What does a film producer do with a giant ship, once the movie is finished? We're told that Keaton's producer Nicholas Schenck sold it back to the salvage yard they bought it from, for the same amount of money. For sheer production Keaton didn't top this show until his 1926 The General, a masterpiece that allowed him to play with toy trains on a vast comedic scale.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of The Navigator is a very good presentation of this guaranteed-to-please silent comedy classic. No pristine element for the film has surfaced but the slightly worn Raymond Rohauer collection copy on view has been transferred with consummate care, and spared a digital scrubbing that would have softened edges and dulled the granularity of the original image. Original color tints have been retained. Robert Israel arranged and composed the music score.
Bruce Lawton wrote the making-of featurette for the disc, referencing clips from earlier Keaton short subjects that exploited the comic potential of boats. Robert Arkus and Yair Solan provide the audio commentary. In addition to an image gallery, the disc gives us a vintage 78 rpm recording of a song that Rollo plays during the nightmare sequence aboard the boat. Kino's disc producer is Bret Wood, who worked from an earlier edition produced for video by David Shepard.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Navigator Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.