A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Navigator (Donald Crisp and Buster Keaton, 1924)

Buster Keaton always makes me grin. The first time I did it while watching The Navigator was when rich twit Rollo Treadaway (Keaton) puts on a straw hat and then gracefully steadies it with the crook of his cane. Keaton can do more with a hat -- or, later, hats -- than anyone, even Cary Grant with the outsize hat in my favorite scene in The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937). And then the grin became a guffaw when Rollo gets in his chauffeur-driven limousine to go propose to Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire), another rich twit. The limo starts out and immediately makes a U-turn to the other side of the street, where Betsy lives. It's not just Keaton's physical grace and dexterity, for all that he pretends to be a klutz, or even the unexpectedness of some of the gags that make me so happy. It's primarily the sense of joy I get in watching a kid play with his toys. For Keaton has such wonderful toys in his movies. In The General (Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1926) he has an entire antique railroad train to play with (and destroy); in Go West (Keaton, 1925) it's a herd of cattle; in Steamboat Bill Jr. (Charles Reisner but really Keaton, 1928) it's a town in a terrific windstorm. So you can imagine his delight when he heard than a retired Army transport ship was for sale, and he could refit this enormous toy into the cruise ship Navigator and do with it as he pleased. And he certainly made the most of it, using the exposed decks and corridors for a hilarious game of unwitting hide-and-seek between Rollo and Betsy, turning the galley into an improbable kitchen for two rich twits who have never had to cook their own breakfast, and donning an old-fashioned diving suit for an extended underwater sequence: Keaton does the only pratfall I've ever seen anyone do underwater and in a diving suit, legs straight out as all the great slapstick comics did pratfalls. There are some occasional slow moments: The battle with the "cannibals" goes on much too long. But the pacing mostly stays so rapid that you want to rewind and watch some scenes to see what you miss -- a luxury denied his original audiences, who had to stay and sit through it twice. McGuire also appeared in Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1924), proving herself what any of Keaton's leading ladies had to be: game for almost anything, including repeated dives and dunkings.  Although Donald Crisp, better known to us as an actor, was an experienced director -- he has 72 IMDb directing credits from 1914 through 1930 -- he turned out to be a mismatch with Keaton, who took over and finished the film, sometimes reshooting scenes that Crisp had directed.