Monday Editor’s Pick: The Navigator (1924)

by on July 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Mon July 18 at 7:15 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

*With short NEIGHBORS (1920)

**Live piano accompaniment


Buster Keaton’s 1924 comedy The Navigator comes to Film Forum tonight as part of their series “The Best of Buster Keaton.” For our extended coverage of Buster click here.


Here’s Dave Kehr giving a nice summary of the film for The Chicago Reader:

Buster Keaton’s 1924 film is about a rich young couple, who have never needed to look out for themselves, cast adrift on a deserted ocean liner. The ordinary difficulties of existence are magnified by the fact that all the facilities are intended not for individual needs but to cater to a thousand people. The situation is perfectly suited to Keaton’s natural sense of surrealism—everything is too big, too full, and too much. Keaton and his girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire) become two innocents lost in a threatening, mechanistic Eden, alone in their oversized world. A masterpiece, and very, very funny.



And James Agee waxing rhapsodic on a sight-gag in “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” collected in Agee on Film:

Adrift on a ship which he believes is otherwise empty, he drops a lighted cigarette. A girl finds it. She calls out and he hears her; each then tries to find the other. First each walks purposefully down the long, vacant starboard deck, the girl, then Keaton, turning the corner just in time not to see each other. Next time around each of them is trotting briskly, very much in earnest; going to the same pace, they miss each other just the same. Next time around each of them is going like a bat out of hell. Again they miss. Then the camera withdraws to a point of vantage at the stern, leans its chin in its hand and just watches the whole intricate superstructure of the ship as the protagonists stroll, steal and scuttle from level to level, up, down and sidewise, always managing to miss each other by hair’s-breadths, in an enchantingly neat and elaborate piece of timing.


Mordaunt Hall, in The New York Times, from 1924, when film critics would be brutally punished for lack of floridness:

To have a contrast to this comedian’s placidity of countenance, we had only to look at those watching this picture. Mouths were wide open in explosions of laughter and eyes sparkled with merriment.

The Navigator is an excellent panacea for melancholia or lethargy, as it is filled with ludicrous and intensely humorous situations. It even strikes one as being astonishing that this comedian can keep such perfect control over his physiognomy during the action of this parcel of mirth.



Imogen Sara Smith in Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy:

The Navigator is daringly spare, its cast reduced to the Man, the Woman, the Machine, and the Crowd. You could say there is one more character: the Camera. When it pulls back to an extreme long shot to reveal Buster and his girl chasing each other around the maze of corridors and decks and stairs on an ocean liner, or to watch Buster attempt to tow the liner with a small rowboat; or when it goes into a tight close-up of Buster’s hands as he tries to shuffle a wet deck of cards that turns to mush in his nimble, oblivious fingers, the camera makes the joke. There is something subtly funny about the calm way it records the frantic, mounting lunacy of the chase, seeing all and saying nothing. The camera has the sense of proportion that the people onscreen lack. Buster is the nitwit in the boat, but he also, in a sense, is the camera, the eye that sees the big picture. A sense of humor depends on distance, perspective, the ability to see things in two ways at once. Keaton’s camera has a sense of humor.


In The Navigator, the camera never makes itself known through tricks or attention-getting angles, but it consistently plays a vital role in gags by capturing actions in the most effective—and funniest—way possible. Keaton’s goal, on both sides of the camera, was to hide the amount of effort that went into achieving his effects…His films are as good as they are because he had only one thing on his mind: to make them as good as possible. He just didn’t care how much anything cost, or how much trouble it was, or how much risk or discomfort he put himself through. This attitude reached its peak (or, from his producers’ standpoint, its nadir) in The Navigator’s underwater sequence, when Buster dons a diving suit and descends to the ocean floor to repair his ship. The liquid element always brought out the surrealist in Keaton; here is washes and dries his hands underwater, uses a lobster to clip wires and a swordfish to fence with another swordfish. But nothing in the sequence is more impressive than his expressive, understated acting while encumbered in the enormous diving suit.



As for Variety, in their original review they were way impressed by the special effects:

The film is novel in that it has Keaton in a deep-sea diving outfit with the camera catching him under water for comedy insertions. There’s a possibility of doubling during some of the action, but close-ups are registered under water that reveal Keaton, personally, behind the glass within the helmet.


Finally, art historian Erwin Panofsky, speaking of the history of silent cinema in his essay “Style and Medium in the Motion Picture,” collected in Three Essays on Style:


How the earlier Russian films exploited the possibility of heroizing all sorts of machinery live’s in everybody’s memory; and it is perhaps more than an accident that the two films which will do down in history as the great comical and the great serious masterpiece of the silent period bear the names and immortalize the personalities of two big ships: Keaton’s The Navigator and Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.


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