The Navigator (1924) Director: Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp
The Navigator is another delightful and important silent film directed by Buster Keaton. It is prescient in a number of ways, not least of which foreshadowing the work of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times with an examination of man in his unnatural habitat filled with confusing and anxiety-ridden machinery. This film, perhaps more than any other Buster Keaton film, cemented his legacy alongside his comedic counterparts Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. The Navigator is a wonderful film to be viewed by all lovers of classic cinema.
The Navigator is an essential Buster Keaton film, and one of his first great films, following Sherlock, Jr. It contains some of Keaton’s best stunts and is based on the screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, a writer for other great comedies, including the works of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Harold Lloyd. Bruckman (pronounced “Brook-man”) was also a writer for other famous Buster Keaton films, such as Our Hospitality, Sherlock, Jr., Seven Chances, The Cameraman, and The General. Later, in 1955, Bruckman borrowed a gun from Buster Keaton claiming he needed it for a hunting trip, and instead, he drove himself to a restaurant in Santa Monica and shot himself in the bathroom. Some have speculated this was because he didn’t have any career left after being ushered out of film and television with the rise of talkies and his alcoholism which prevented him from gaining more senior roles.
At any rate, the film tells the story of Rollo Treadway, the son of a wealthy family played by Buster Keaton, who sees an African American couple recently married and he decides to propose to a girl, as well. He orders his butler to purchase honeymoon tickets and he drives across the street to his neighbors’ house and proposes to a girl, Betsey O’Brien, played by Kathryn McGuire. However, predictably, she rejects him and he decides to go on the honeymoon trip by himself anyway. He heads to the ship that night, but he winds up boarding from the wrong dock. He boards The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsey’s wealthy father to a small country at war, and that evening they decide to set the boat adrift. However, Betsey tries to follow her father after he is captured and she boards the ship, as well. Both passengers eventually find one another aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific, after a series of gags and they are nearly rescued by another ship that turns away, when Treadway raises the wrong flag. They develop a series of machines to help them with their daily lives, but the ship runs aground on a remote island filled with cannibals. While Treadway is underwater with his suit trying to fix the boat, Betsey is carried off by the natives but when he emerges in his suit from the ocean, he scares off the cannibals and the couple tries to escape in a small dinghy but it becomes filled with water as the cannibals close in. At the last moment, a submarine surfaces and saves Betsey and Rollo.
The idea for the film came to Buster Keaton -an idea of two wealthy spoiled children who are cast adrift and must learn to survive together. The USAT Buford, named after the prominent Union Civil War hero. was the actual boat used in the film and it was re-purposed from use the Spanish American War and World War I. It was also used to deport radicals during the first so-called Palmer Raids of the “Red Scare”, where socialists and anarchists were deported from the United States to Russia, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. It was also later dubbed the “Red Ark.” Most of the filming of The Navigator was conducted off the coast of Catalina Island in the Bay of Avalon. The shooting for the underwater scenes was originally intended to be filmed in a swimming pool that unfortunately broke under the wight of the excess water, a cost Buster Keaton had to pay for, thus the remaining underwater scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe. It was so cold that Buster Keaton could only reportedly be underwater for a few minutes before surfacing and reviving himself with straight bourbon. The film was Buster Keaton’s biggest blockbuster of his career. Co-director, Donald Crisp, left the production for the underwater filming, as Keaton was displeased with his work.