The Navigator (1924) Director: Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp
Whereas Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp” was an impoverished, downtrodden yet dreamy sort of fellow, Buster Keaton often portrayed the opposite kind of clown –a despoiled and soft milquetoast who is perpetually the disappointment of his father. In The Navigator Buster Keaton offers another delightful parody of adventure films, one that is prescient in a number of ways, not least of which because it foreshadows the work of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) with an examination of man in his unnatural habitat surrounded by confusing and anxiety-ridden machinery.
The Navigator contains some of Keaton’s best stunts, it is based on a screenplay by Clyde Bruckman, a writer of other great comedies, whose works feature the likes of W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and Harold Lloyd. Bruckman (pronounced “Brook-man”) was also a co-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 of his declining career with the rise of talkies as well as his alcoholism which prevented him from gaining more senior roles. When I learned this fact, it simply added to the mounting tragedies Buster Keaton faced in later life, however The Navigator was completed during Keaton’s golden age, at the pinnacle of Old Stone Face’s success.
The film tells the story of Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton), an underwhelming son of means and privilege. One day, he spots an African American couple recently married and he decides to propose to a girl, as well. He orders his butler to prematurely purchase tickets for his honeymoon and he drives across the street to his neighbors’ house where he proposes to Betsey O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire). However, predictably, she rejects him and he decides to go on the honeymoon trip by himself anyway. He heads for the ship that evening, but he mistakenly boards from the wrong dock. He actually hops aboard The Navigator, a ship recently sold by Betsey’s wealthy father to a smaller nation which is currently at war, and that evening they decide to set the boat adrift. However, Betsey tries to follow her father after he is captured and now she boards The Navigator, as well. Both Rollo and Betsey eventually find one another aboard the ship in the middle of the Pacific, and after a series of gags they are very nearly rescued by another ship but it turns away when Rolo raises the wrong flag. Then Rollo and Betsey develop a series of machines to help them with their daily lives, but the ship runs aground at a remote island filled with cannibals. While Rollo is underwater with his suit trying to fix the boat, Betsey is carried off by the cannibals until they catch sight of Rollo’s underwater suit which scares them away. 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 (an amusing gag which is later used in the James Bond film You Only live Twice).
The idea for The Navigator came to Buster Keaton as he envisioned 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 after being used in 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.” Buster Keaton’s producer Joseph Schenck nearly nixed the whole project when he discovered that Keaton purchased the boat for $25,000. Most of the filming of The Navigator was conducted off the coast of Catalina Island in the Bay of Avalon. The shots for the underwater scenes were originally intended to be filmed in a swimming pool but the pool unfortunately broke under the weight of the excess water, a cost Buster Keaton had to pay out of pocket, thus the remaining underwater scenes were filmed in Lake Tahoe. It was so cold that Buster Keaton could only stand being underwater for a few minutes before surfacing and reviving himself with straight bourbon. These little anecdotes help to round out Buster Keaton’s brilliance and dedication as a film-maker.
I picked up on the fact that film titles like The Navigator or The General have a certain double meaning. The Navigator obviously references the boat in the film, but it also points to Buster Keaton’s character, Rollo Treadway, who is navigating his way through life only to accidentally stumble upon success in the end. The same can be said of The General which obviously references the runaway train, but also it points to Buster Keaton’s character, Johnnie Grey, who transforms himself into a courageous, albeit under-appreciated, general of sorts in the Civil War.