Monday, March 23, 2015
Of Buster Keaton's great silent comedies, The Navigator is one of his most brilliant, inventive and most problematic. Released in 1924, it has dated the most because of its racist depictions of some native islanders at the film's climax.
Keaton's stillness at the center of a universe in motion has been noted since critics first noticed his strange air of distraction. It was no accident that Samuel Beckett was moved to write his one and only film script, called (what else?) Film (1964), especially for Keaton. Old and ill, Keaton says nothing throughout the short (17 minute) work, directed by Alan Schneider. We see him, with his signature porkpie hat, from behind until the end, when we notice he is wearing an eye-patch. However astonishing it is to find Keaton in such an erstwhile avant-garde film, it is hard not to conclude that his talents, though dimmed, were squandered on such a strained stab at what comes across as deliberate obscurity.
In The Navigator, Buster plays Rollo Treadway, an utterly clueless young millionaire similar to the one he played in Battling Butler (1926) - One who "can't even shave himself," as Keaton later described him. One morning he looks out of the window of his mansion and notices a jalopy carrying a young couple "just married" and gets it into his head that he should get married as well. He tells his butler (or is it a batman?) his intentions and that he must acquire two tickets for a "honeymoon in Honolulu."
When he crosses the street in his chauffered limousine to propose to his sweetheart, the daughter of the shipping magnate Fredrick Vroom, she turns him down. Hurt but unbroken, Rollo decides to sail to Honolulu alone, but boards the wrong ship - the Navigator - that is, unbeknownst to Rollo, set adrift by saboteurs. Of course, his sweetheart gets stranded on the ship with him. All of this happens in the first five minutes of this not quite hour-long film.
From thenceforward, all the film's gags derive from how these two people, who never learned how to care for themselves, survive on a deserted ship adrift at sea. The very first day, when neither of them knows that the other is aboard, the two spend several minutes perambulating the deck, discovering that they aren't alone, and circling the deck to find each other. The Girl finds a lit cigarette stub on the deck and calls out to whomever can hear her. Buster, on an upper deck, responds by proceeding in the direction of the call, but the Girl is going in the opposite direction on the other side of the ship. For the next few minutes we watch as they each run and just miss seeing the other around the multilevel decks and up and down stairs until Fate - and a strong draft from a ventilator shaft - brings them together with a crash.
Somehow the two survive. A title tells us "Weeks later - still adrift" and we are shown how they have adapted to their new lives: they each sleep (separately, of course) inside the ship's massive dormant boilers and have rigged an elaborate system of pulleys to prepare their meals.
When the ship runs aground, Buster dons a deep-sea diving suite and once again demonstrates what a fine line there was between a gag and a death-defying stunt. The underwater scenes take place just after the ship comes within sight of an island inhabited by cannibals, and the film veers off-course into some racist waters. The Tarzan movies a decade later were at least as guilty of this, and a comedy - especially a great one like The Navigator - had more room to indulge in such stereotypes. (What South Pacific island has African natives?) To what degree such "cannibals" were stock figures in American films of the 1920s, it is nonetheless difficult today to laugh during the scenes of Buster and the Girl being menaced by the grass-skirted islanders.
The rest of The Navigator not only holds up after ninety years, it gets better. In an essay from 1986, Vernon Young was moved to write:
"When we compare the comedies of Chaplin with those of Buster Keaton, Keaton will prove to have the greater latitude of witness point. If, in Keaton's films, there is nothing to rival the dream sequence in The Kid, there is no episode in a Chaplin film comparable to that fabulous setup in The Navigator where Buster and his girl, lone passengers on an ocean liner adrift, keep missing one another in a tour de force of timing and camera perspective which, seen today, justifies our exclaiming: Kafka!"*
*Vernon Young, "Chaplin Disinterred," The New Criterion, June 1986. Young's obituary appeared on August 23 that same year in The Philadelphia Inquirer.