The Navigator (1924)
Director: Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Frederick Vroom
Synopsis: Two spoiled rich people find themselves trapped on an empty passenger ship.
Buster Keaton’s The Navigator is probably the only movie in screen history that is devised around one of its props, the SS Buford, a former Army transporter used in the Spanish American War, which was due to be scrapped. Spying a unique opportunity and location for a movie, Keaton purchased the ship for the knockdown price of $25,000, and then had writers Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell and Jean Havez build a story around it. Perhaps this explains why The Navigator never quite reaches the comedy heights of Keaton’s greatest films.
Keaton eschewed his trademark pork pie hat in The Navigator to play Rollo Treadway, a spoiled millionaire in love with the girl across the street (Kathryn McGuire). One day, Rollo decides to marry her and has his chauffeur drive him across the road to propose. Stung by her refusal, Rollo decides to go on the cruise he had planned as a honeymoon but accidentally ends up on a ship which political dissidents intend to release from its moorings. By one of those unlikely coincidences that only occur in early cinema, Rollo’s unrequited love also ends up on board, and the couple wake up one morning to discover they are the only passengers on the randomly drifting ship.
Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for a comedy, but this struck me as one of Keaton’s least funny movies. The quiet charm that he usually brought to his characters seems to be entirely lacking in Rollo Treadway, whose exploits and mishaps come across as annoying rather than humorous. He and Kathryn McGuire generate little chemistry onscreen, despite appearing together in Sherlock Jr. the same year (The Navigator was a commercially-orientated response to the box-office failure of that movie).
The movie is virtually plotless while the couple are adrift in their ship, studiously given a wide berth by other vessels after Rollo hoisted the bright yellow ‘quarantine’ flag to attract their attention, and the humour relies on their inability to care for themselves because of their pampered lifestyles. Later, after they have devised a number of Heath Robinson-ish devices to perform such tricky chores as opening tins, the movie has them drifting towards an island filled with hungry cannibals. The movie does pick up considerably during this climactic sequence, although the humour is still below par by Keaton’s usually impeccable standards.
Keaton aficionados will probably be damning me to hell if they’ve even bothered to reach this far into the review — The Navigator is highly regarded by most people — but writing reviews isn’t about currying favour or winning popularity. If you’re someone who appreciates Keaton’s brand of humour — for my money, he outshone Chaplin and matched Lloyd for ingenuity — but isn’t an out-and-out fan, then this may well prove to be your least favourite of his films.
Reviewed 1st July 2012)