Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Navigator

In The Navigator, Buster Keaton plays Rollo Treadway, a wealthy society heir with a very unsentimental idea of love. He simply decides one day that he'd like to get married after seeing a happy newlywed couple outside his window, and he promptly makes all the arrangements before strolling across the street to tell the woman he has in mind (Kathryn McGuire), another socialite. She says no, and Keaton, his deadpan expression never changing, just turns around and returns home without another word.

Through a mishap, the pair then winds up together on a drifting ocean liner, the only people aboard as the giant boat floats out to sea. For a while, they're unaware of each other's presence on the boat, and Keaton makes the most of the sequence where they wander around the boat, constantly missing each other by just a second, one going up a ladder while the other goes down a different ladder, darting through corridors at cross purposes, crossing paths but never so much as catching a glimpse of the other person. Keaton's sense of timing is impeccable: his comedy has a precise geometric formalism that's perfectly timed and laid out. He places his camera in ways that emphasize this timing, shooting down a long corridor with the characters running in circles, one bounding into the frame in the foreground at precisely the moment that the other disappears around the far corner, out of view.

When they finally collide into one another and realize that they're not alone on the ship, there follows a lengthy, brilliant and ultimately touching sequence in which these two spoiled rich youths struggle to fend for themselves. Earlier, Keaton's Rollo had gotten into his limo for a simple ride across the street — the car only had to make a U-turn to arrive at the destination — and had obliviously tried to take a bath in his clothes, suggesting just how helpless he is, how dependent he is on servants and luxury. When he's left on his own, the results are predictably comical, and the film's funniest sequence is the one where the two hapless socialites try to prepare breakfast, making "coffee" with a few uncrushed beans and seawater, throwing a handful of eggs into a massive pot of boiling water and then fishing around to find them again, trying and failing to open cans of food with a butcher knife.

It's unrelentingly hilarious, and it pays off in a big way later in the film when a title card provides an ellipsis of several weeks, after which time the couple have adapted to their circumstances and evolved a whole succession of Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions to perform their morning chores. It's great stuff, with these wealthy, sheltered socialites learning to do things for themselves, to make inventive use of their surroundings. They perform the same tasks that they'd earlier struggled with so comically, now having remade the ship's kitchen in clever ways that demonstrate how they've learned from their mistakes, transforming the place into a complex series of levers and makeshift devices that help them through their morning tasks. They've also found shelter, after the slightly melancholy comedy of the sequence where they'd wandered all around the ship, trying to find a comfortable and safe place to sleep, spooking themselves with fireworks mistaken for candles and a creepy portrait of the ship's captain (co-director Donald Crisp) that Keaton mistakes for a sinister-looking man peering in through a porthole. Keaton's attempts to comfort and help his companion reveal a tenderness and compassion not revealed by his characteristic stoic expression and the deadpan way he'd approached romance earlier in the film. This undercurrent reaches its apex with a wonderful shot in which Keaton and McGuire struggle to light some candles while their shadows seem to kiss on the wall behind them, enacting the romance that they never quite consummate in the flesh.

After all this equally poignant and hilarious build-up, the film's final act is a bit of a letdown, as Keaton and McGuire run into an island full of cannibals and have to fend off the vicious natives. The racial caricatures are unfortunate, but mostly these sequences are disappointing simply because they're not at the same level of formal ingenuity and hilarity as the rest of the film. One exception is the famous scene where Keaton, in a diving suit, goes underwater to repair the ship's hull before the natives can reach them. It's an example of Keaton's physicality and preference for realistic stunts, as he really dives under and enacts a series of pantomime gags, like washing his hands in a bucket and then drying them off with a rag. Best of all is his fight with a pair of swordfish, one of which he wrestles into submission and then starts using its nose to duel with a second, bigger fish that appears. The submarine gag at the very end of the film is also a nice final note, especially the dazzling 360-degree spin in which everyone within the sub struggles to stay upright.

Coming after the viscerally exciting Our Hospitality and the absolutely brilliant Sherlock Jr., The Navigator feels like a bit of a step down for Keaton, but certainly not a big one. Its best gags have the director's characteristic precision and unparalleled sense of space, as well as being side-splittingly funny and thematically resonant. The film's theme is awareness: these sheltered people, locked off in a world of privilege at the beginning of the film, gradually become aware of the necessity of paying attention to the world around them, caring for other people, and working together to survive. By the end, these hapless socialites have become inventive and lively, propelled into constant motion and constantly ingenious use of everything they can lay their hands on. This includes each other, too: in one very suggestive shot, McGuire uses Keaton, in full diving gear, as a boat, straddling him and paddling back to the safety of their ocean liner.


Sam Juliano said...

In his seminal volume on silent comedy titled "The Silent Clowns" Walter Kerr makes claim that THE NAVIGATOR is one of Keaton's two "perfect" films (the other is THE GENERAL). While I'm not sure I quite agree with that assessment, I probably have less later issues with the film than you do, even though your final judgement is that it's still very great. My favorite gag of all (which you mention here) is the one where the photograph of the scary chap gets caught on a hook over a porthole and swings back and forth while Keaton is trying to sleep. Classic. I also love some of the underwater humor, including the one you celebrate here with the swordfish, and some deck chair chananigans earlier one that recall Chaplin. Kathryn McGuire, who also appeared in SHERLOCK JR., is wonderful and the film is splendidly orchestrated, as it revolves around two quintessential Keaton themes: technological changes and execution and social status.

I have read that the silent and talking actor Donald Crisp was brought in to direct the straight sequences, only to allow his humorless persona to ruin the spirit, forcing Keaton to re-shoot everything.

Again you have penned a tremenous review here on Keaton's work.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks a lot, Sam. Although I have some problems with the last act and the cannibal stuff, I still rate this film quite highly, and it's overall great. Not on the highest level of Keaton's oeuvre with The General, Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill Jr., but still really excellent. The scenes with just Keaton and McGuire together on the boat surely rank among his finest work.

I'd also heard that Crisp was brought in for that reason, and that Keaton wound up barely using him. I don't really know why Keaton so often worked with co-directors since he apparently almost always wound up doing everything himself.