The Navigator

Directors: Donald Crisp & Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman & Joseph A. Mitchell and Jean C. Havez
Stars: Buster Keaton (Rollo Treadway), Kathryn McGuire (Betsy O’Brien), Frederick Vroom (John O’Brien), Clarence Burton (Spy), H.N. Clugston (Spy), Noble Johnson (Cannibal Chief)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1924
Country: U.S.
Sherlock Jr. / The Navigator Blu-ray
The Navigator

The Navigator is an amusing Buster Keaton comedy—hardly one of his best, but one that certainly has more than its share of pleasures. It was Keaton’s fourth feature-length film, following Three Ages (1923), Our Hospitality (1923), and his masterpiece Sherlock, Jr., which was released the same year. The Navigator was a significant financial success for Keaton, even though it incurred significant production costs (including the rebuilding of a swimming pool that was destroyed while filming underwater scenes and the purchase of a 5,000-ton ocean liner destined for the scrap yard) that raised the ire of Keaton’s longtime producer, Joseph Schenck.

Keaton plays Rollo Treadway, a wealthy young man who is not exactly the prize of his powerful family. Rollo is a variation on Bertie Van Alstyne, the naïve, coddled, simple-minded playboy Keaton played in The Saphead (1920), a figure of amusement that Keaton had been wanting to recreate. After seeing blissful newlyweds out his window, Rollo decides that the time has come for him to marry, so he immediately goes across the street (driven by his chauffeur, of course) and proposes to his girlfriend Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire), who promptly turns him down. Distraught, Rollo decides to go ahead and take the honeymoon cruise to Honolulu he had already booked for them, but instead winds up on the deserted ship of the title, which happens to have been recently sold by Betsy’s father to a small country needing ships for war. While he is asleep in his cabin, the ship is cut loose by spies from an opposing country, but not before Betsy also boards the ship looking for her father. Thus, the would-be betrothed couple find themselves floating alone on the open ocean, which offers a wide range of opportunity for all manner of mayhem, much of it arising from the fact that they, both being pampered rich kids, have no idea how to manage things for themselves. After a few weeks at sea they get things under control, and one of the film’s most amusing setpieces shows how they have rigged up a series of Rube Goldberg contraptions involving ropes and pullies to complete basic tasks like making coffee.

Rollo and Betsy eventually find land, only to discover that it is the province of a tribe of dark-skinned cannibals. This, unfortunately, means that a significant chunk of the film is mired in uncomfortable stereotypes involving primitive, ooga-booga black men in loin cloths jumping around and being threatening, only to be easily turned into buffoons by Rollo and Betsy. The chief of the cannibals was played by Noble Johnson, an African-American actor and film pioneer whose impressive sounding name matched his impressive stature. He was one of the co-founders of the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., the first black-owned production company to specialize in so-called “race movies,” which were made specifically for black audiences who otherwise did not see themselves represented on-screen except in roles like the ones that Johnson had to take in films like The Navigator to pay the bills (like John Cassavettes and Orson Welles would do later, he paid for his own productions by acting in others’).

Keaton codirected The Navigator with Donald Crisp, an actor-turned-directed who had worked as an assistant for D.W. Griffith and had memorably played Lillian Gish’s drunken, abusive father in Broken Blossoms (1919) (he would abandon directing after 1930 and return to acting full time, and he later won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley). Keaton had hired Crisp to direct the film’s dramatic scenes, but soon found that Crisp was more interested in helming the comedy scenes. Keaton, never one to cede control, told Crisp that production was finished, and then went back and reshot his scenes. Interestingly, Keaton, despite asserting control, never put together one of his fabled trajectory gags, and you can really feel its absence. He has a great underwater bit in which Rollo dons a massive diving suit and attempts to repair the hull of the leaking ship, but at one point finds himself dueling with a swordfish using another swordfish in an inspired bit of goofy, cartoonish fun. It’s a wonderfully funny moment, even if the film as a whole doesn’t live up to Keaton’s greatest work.

The Buster Keaton Collection Vol. 2: Sherlock, Jr. / The Navigator Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (The Navigator)
  • DTS-Had Master Audio 2.0 surround (Sherlock, Jr.
  • SubtitlesNone
    Supplements
  • “Buster Keaton: The Great Stone Face” featurette
  • “Buster Keaton: The Comedian” featurette
  • Restoration trailers for both films
  • DistributorCohen Film Collection
    SRP$30.98
    Release DateJuly 9, 2019

    COMMENTS
    The second volume of the Cohen Film Collection’s Buster Keaton films offers us two new transfers, both of which looks very good. The transfer for Sherlock, Jr. was made from a first-generation interpositive safety print held by the Cohen Film Collection, with some missing shots replaced from a second generation internegative and a third generation safety print from the Harvard Archive. The Navigator was transferred from a third generation safety duplicate positive held by the Cohen Film Collection. Sherlock, Jr. is clearly the better looking of the two films, as The Navigator is overall softer and betrays more damage, although it is minimal after digital restoration. Both transfers maintain a pleasing filmlike appearance and don’t try to flatten out or erase the film grain. There is some variance in quality from shot to shot, but such is to be expected from films of this age. Overall, both look better they ever have on home video. Both films also feature new scores, with The Navigator’s presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and Sherlock, Jr.’s presented in DTS-HD Master Audio two-channel stereo. In terms of supplements, we get two four-minutes featurettes culled from interviews recorded for the feature-length documentary The Great Buster: “Buster Keaton: The Great Stone Face” and “Buster Keaton: The Comedian,” both of which feature interviews with film critic Leonard Malton, actor Bill Hader, and directors Quentin Tarantino and Jon Watts, among others. The disc also includes restoration trailers for both films.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Cohen Film Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)



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