Eureka’s first box set of Blu-Ray Buster Keaton reissues, released in 2017, featured Steamboat Bill Jr., Sherlock Jr. and The General, the latter being the film that, more than any other, his contemporary auteur reputation rests on. The General was a critical and commercial flop on release; The Navigator, which kicks off Eureka’s second box set, was his biggest hit. The temptation may be to assume The Navigator must be less challenging, less original, much as the Marx brothers’ full-throttle Duck Soup was less successful at the box office than all those films that adulterated their anarchy with romantic subplots and musical numbers. But hold that thought. The Navigator was also Keaton’s favourite of his own films, and it shows his unparalleled skills as both a director of and a performer of physical comedy at their most robust.
It begins with a scene of grand melodrama that can easily be interpreted as Keaton parodying the acting style of his more – let’s say demonstrative – silent-era peers. It is established that a faraway war between two tiny countries has embroiled America somehow. It really doesn’t matter how, and an audience just ten years on from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand probably didn’t want to dwell on it in the context of a light comedy. What matters is that the tycoon John O’Brien has sold a ship, the Navigator, to the enemy, and a war-room of gesticulating politicians decide to scuttle it.
The threat established – and Keaton, as a comic scenarist, is unusually interested in danger, whether in death-defying stunts or the Civil War setting of The General – we meet our hero. Keaton plays Rollo Treadway, the disappointing son of a wealthy family. The intertitles call him a “sap”, that wonderful silent-comedy word, but modern taxonomy would dub him a failson. The failson is a recurring theme of Keaton’s work, not least in Seven Chances and Battling Butler, the other two films in this box set. His lack of a partner, a career or even much common sense are an endless source of frustration for his relatives, and it’s not hard to see why. Almost as soon as Rollo is introduced, he takes a bath without remembering to take his dressing gown off. He’s some way through scrubbing under his arms before he realises.
The appeal of this character type for Keaton is, I think, that it allows him to make a character as oblivious and put-upon as possible while sketching in a cosseted background that makes his bizarre naïveté understandable. And it is naïveté rather than the simple idiocy of, say, the Three Stooges. Keaton’s celebrated stillness and grace make his characters look blissfully disconnected from the real world, and make the life-threatening situations he’s placed in look absurd rather than worrying.
It’s inevitable that contrivance placed Rollo on the Navigator as it sails towards disaster, but nothing about The Navigator is off-the-peg or lazy. Keaton used then-cutting-edge technology to film a lengthy set piece underwater, which is still hugely impressive today. Even under the surface of Lake Tahoe, Keaton’s comic timing is still note-perfect, and there’s one gag – a sword-fight, of a kind – that stands among the most joyously absurd moments in his canon. Yet The Navigator is more than a one-man show. It reunites Keaton with Kathryn McGuire, an accomplished dancer and comedian who had appeared briefly in his last film Sherlock Jr. The Navigator would provide a fuller picture of her comic talent.
As David Cairns notes in his excellent accompanying video essay, it’s unusual to see a silent comedy star of Keaton’s stature letting a female co-lead get so many laughs. The finale, set on an island of rather stereotypical cannibals, is less laudable, though hardly unusual for an American film of this vintage. Indeed, as Cairns points out, the cannibal chief is played by Noble Johnson, who essentially reprised this role in no less a film than King Kong. It does briefly turn McGuire into a damsel in distress, though Keaton is no swashbuckling hero, and the ridiculous manner in which he helps her escape is one of the funniest images in a film full of delights.
The other video extra, a ten-minute piece about Keaton’s boat fascination by Bruce Lawton, mentions a colour-tinted version that Keaton supervised. It isn’t included here, but the black-and-white version provided looks as good as new. Commentary by Robert Arkus and Yair Solan rounds off a well-considered, respectful package for a landmark in comedy cinema.