Buster Keaton is so recognizable as the stuntman with the bemused face and Basset Hound eyes but that it is easy to forget his ingenious ability to frame action comedy with effortless precision. More than a cinematic clown he had the visual sophistication and ingenuity of a grand architect. This is most apparent in The Navigator; a screwball misadventure where Keaton is trapped on an empty cruise ship with a girl that dislikes him. The story is rather incidental and cumbersome but it shows Keaton making the most of the setting through creative use framing and props. This results in one of his more ambitious and spectacular comedies.
The story essentially begins with war spies preparing to send the titular cruise ship adrift into the sea. The captain’s daughter Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) attempts but fails to stop this scheme, leaving here trapped on the ship. Making matters worse, her idiot neighbor Rollo Treadway (Keaton) is somehow on the ship, thinking it was traveling to Honolulu. The story of The Navigator is mostly an excuse to put Buster Keaton on a boat, but what a boat. Like the trains in The General, Keaton lovingly frames the rooms and the machinations of the titular ship to the point that it is as much a character as it is a setting. The way the camera shifts with the tide and how a long shot can reveal the baffling scale of the deck are astounding and clever details. It shows Keaton to be as much an inspiration for Wes Anderson as he is for Jackie Chan.
The ship plays like an ironic hell and Treadway and O’Brien, who seemingly never had a hardship in their life. There is plenty of food and space, but their inability to do even simple tasks like open a tuna can, make coffee, or even adjust a lawn chair makes any sense of comfort just out of reach for these dim rich kids. Clearly they never lived without servants but there is a dry and innocent charm to their absurd tricks at surviving on the ship. It helps that Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire have a lovely screwball chemistry that is surprisingly rare in Keaton’s work. Keaton’s films are often not as romantic as Charlie Chaplin’s comedies can be yet The Navigator shows Keaton finding a solid comedic equal in McGuire.
The Navigator shows Keaton challenging his ambitions in a way that defined himself as a great silent filmmaker. He utilizes aspects of the ship that still makes it feel fresh and hilarious; plus, Kathryn McGuire is that rare example of a genuinely fun romantic lead in a Keaton comedy. The film was one of Keaton’s most technically impressive works but it is not one of his most palatable. Much of what make this film great can be found in later—and better—works like Sherlock Jr. and The General. Nevertheless, the film is has great spectacle for those willing to go deep into Buster Keaton’s filmography. Like is a marvelous yet rusty old ship, The Navigator is a great artifact of a time that would be best to not relive.
This post is part of the 3rd Annual Buster Keaton Blogaton, which is celebrating 100 years of Keaton's films. For more essays and reviews on Keaton check out the hosting blog Silentology.
[Edit: In the original post I falsely presumed that the actor Noble Johnson, who plays the Cannibal Chief, was a white actor in blackface, when in fact he is actually African-American. This was a failure on my part on to properly research the actors onscreen before completing the post, which is inexcusable. The post has been changed in order to correct this mistake.]