September 24, 2019
The Navigator (1924)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Frederick Vroom

What it's about. Man at leisure Buster Keaton purchases tickets for a honeymoon cruise with his girlfriend Kathryn McGuire, before he proposes to her. She turns him down, but Keaton boards the ship anyway, the night before it sails.

A plot contrivance places McGuire on the ship also. Their presence is unknown to the other, and they become the only two people onboard after it is launched sans crew by saboteurs. They meet the next morning, by which time the ship is in the middle of the ocean. They learn to make do with the provisions on board, and otherwise adapt to their circumstances. Eventually, they approach a tropical island, where they encounter a tribe of cannibals.

Future moviestar Donald Crisp is billed as director, though he did not complete the production. It is his face on the painting that frightens Keaton through a porthole.

How others will see it. Although obscure to most modern cinemaphiles, film scholars well aware of Buster Keaton. He ranks among the most important comic filmmakers during the silent era, trailing only Charlie Chaplin and possibly Harold Lloyd. Many of his 1920s features have been added to the National Film Registry, with The Navigator as the most recent entry, just last year.

It is unsurprising, then, that The Navigator is 8K user votes at, a high total for a silent film. The user rating of 7.8 is also high, with little demographic spread. But of course, the movie is unseen by the vast majority of modern viewers, who wonder why anyone would choose to see a black and white silent movie when there are so many perfectly good color sound films to choose from.

How I felt about it. Although Keaton continued making movies until his 1966 demise, the 1920s are widely regarded as his Golden Age. All of the best features starring Keaton were made during that decade. Some, particularly The General and Sherlock Jr., were better than others. The Navigator is an above average Keaton silent feature. While the plot is familiar, and some gags are repeated to death, it is eminently likable throughout.

As in several of Keaton's 1920s comedies, he is the clueless young adult son of a wealthy family, in pursuit of a brunette conquest. The pursuit sends Keaton off on an adventure he is ill-prepared for, but he tackles it bravely and comes out a winner.

The formula is a mere set-up for gags, which are amusing but unspectacular until the final reel. The foreboding phonographic record is a dud, and who would try to sleep on the ship's deck when it is wildly rocking to and fro? It seems odd that the ship lacks a radio or telegraph room. And what happens to McGuire's kidnapped father?

But once Keaton dons the deep sea diving suit, the fun really gets started. Known for risking his life performing his own stunts, Keaton reportedly nearly drowned in his underwater get-up. When Keaton's character loses his airflow, the suspense is palpable as he must battle a large octopus to make his way onshore.

His battles with energetic and determined cannibals may no longer be politically correct, but they are entertaining.

One has to admire his co-star, Kathryn McGuire, who endures almost as much physical abuse as Keaton during the course of the movie. McGuire was the romantic lead in Keaton's immediately preceding film, Sherlock Jr., which most observers regard as either his best or second-best feature.