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Navigator, The (1924)
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by Jay Seaver

"Buster and his boat."
4 stars

There is something wonderful about the genesis of "The Navigator", with Buster Keaton and his producing team purchasing the USAT Buford on spec, figuring that they would come up with a story to take place on the retired ship once they had it in hand. It's not necessarily what one would call organic development, but it led to a cute idea and a number of funny scenes, which as far as the audience is concerned is a pretty good return on the investment.

The boat in question takes the name of "The Navigator" in the film, where its owner John O'Brien (Frederick Vroom) has just sold it to the representatives of a small nation, which has spies from that country's rival looking to destroy it - although rather than blow it up, they plan to cast it adrift and let the ocean do the rest. Before that happens, though, circumstances will put wealthy idler Rollo Treadway (Keaton) on board, along with John's daughter - and Rollo's former girlfriend - Betsy (Kathryn McGuire). Neither of them possess any particular knowledge of how to operate a ship... Or do much of anything, really.

They will, of course, figure a thing or two out as they go along, although the methods they come up with may be amusingly nonstandard (but, then again, how many people watching the movie now know how to use a key to open a can anyway?). Kathryn McGuire makes a good match for Keaton in doing this sort of deadpan comedy; she's not quite so completely stone-faced as she goes about doing simple things in silly ways, but their scenes are funnier for how neither can talk down to the other (or even give a withering look). There's also a nifty romantic antagonism that you don't always see on this period's comedies, in that while they'll run to each other after being frightened or work together, they're both stubborn enough to not want to be shown up on small things.

About two-thirds of this hour-long movie is set aboard the Navigator, and while ninety years later it can be difficult to recognize what sort of a boon having a ship to which the production could do whatever it wanted was, Keaton and his directing partner Donald Crisp do pull off some nifty work, from an impressively precise set of long-take gags built around Rollo and Betsy just missing each other on the deck to a big battle with the cannibals who have kidnapped Betsy (it's 1924, so of course the islanders they encounter are savage cannibals). There's an elaborate underwater sequence that is probably the biggest example of Buster Keaton putting himself in harms way for your entertainment, and plenty of carefully planned and executed physical comedy beyond that.

"The Navigator" is something of a precursor to Keaton's later movies with big moving pieces such as "The General', although it's not quite the same sort of clockwork brilliance as those movies where all the gags fit together and build up to a genuine classic. Instead, it's the work of Keaton as a craftsman, taking specific raw materials and a basic plan and making something that he can be proud of and which the audience can enjoy. Almost a century later, some bits may be dated, but a lot more are still very funny.

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originally posted: 06/24/14 09:05:55
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  13-Oct-1924 (NR)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2001

  N/A (U)


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