Said to be Buster Keaton's own personal favorite of all his films, THE NAVIGATOR is a classic silent comedy that was also the great comedian's biggest box-office hit.
Pampered millionaire Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton) decides to get married on a whim one day, and makes all the arrangements, including two tickets on an ocean-liner to Honolulu, but neglects to propose to his girl, Betsy O'Brien (Kathryn McGuire). When he gets around to asking her, she rejects
him, so he decides to take the trip anyway, but accidentally boards the wrong boat, the "Navigator," which has been unwittingly sold to foreign agents by Betsy's father, "Cappy" John O'Brien (Frederick Vroom). Opposing foreign agents plan to destroy the "Navigator" and when "Cappy" shows up at the
pier, he's captured, and Betsy goes to look for him, also boarding the ship. The agents then set the vessel adrift, with Rollo and Betsy on board, although neither is aware of the other's presence.
After discovering each other, Rollo and Betsy see another ship and raise a flag to get its attention, but it's a quarantine flag, and the ship turns around. Weeks later, they're still drifting, and they finally come upon land, but it's an island full of cannibals. When Rollo tries to stop the ship
from drifting to the island, he throws an anchor, but it damages the propeller and causes a water pipe to burst. With the ship sinking, Rollo puts on a deep sea diving suit and goes underwater to try to fix the propeller, but the cannibals board the ship, cut his air hose and capture Betsy. Rollo
walks out of the water and scares the cannibals away, and he takes Betsy back to the ship. The cannibals attack the ship again, and Rollo and Betsy jump into the water and escape in a rowboat, but it falls apart. As they're sinking, a submarine comes along underneath them and they climb inside to
safety. Betsy kisses Rollo and he knocks into the steering wheel, causing the submarine to spin around in circles.
THE NAVIGATOR was made when Keaton was at his absolute peak, following the brilliant OUR HOSPITALITY (1923) and SHERLOCK JR. (1924), and came about because Keaton learned that an actual ocean-liner, the "S.S. Buford," was going to be scrapped, so he bought it for a mere $25,000. The simple story
line of two people trapped at sea afforded him the opportunity to be on-screen virtually the entire film, with long, dialogue-free sequences of sheer physical humor as Rollo and Betsy wander the ship together, unencumbered by plot demands. The scene where the two first become aware of each other
on the ship is a classic, breathtakingly staged and perfectly timed. As Rollo goes up one set of steps, Betsy goes down another; they start to chase each other around the deck, going slowly at first, then working up to a frenzied pace. There is a beautiful cut to an extreme long-shot, showing the
entire front of the ship as the two run around like crazy, just missing each other. Finally, he falls down a ventilator pipe and lands right on top of her, and immediately proposes again.
As usual, Keaton's sense of editing and camera placement is unerring, knowing exactly when to let a scene play out without a cut for maximum comic effect, and when to punctuate a laugh with a contemplative long-shot, illustrated again in an hilarious panoramic shot where Rollo tries to pull the
gigantic ship with a tiny rowboat attached by a rope. Another beautifully executed sequence is when they try to make breakfast using huge, industrial-sized pots, pans, and utensils. Eventually, they have the kitchen working like a well-oiled machine through an elaborate system of levers, pulleys,
and chutes that Rollo has rigged (reminiscent of the ingenious contraptions in Keaton's superb 1922 short "The Electric House"). Every single item on the ship is turned into a humorous prop, including a deck chair that keeps folding, candles that turn out to be explosives, and in one of the film's
funniest scenes, a scowling portrait of a sailor that Betsy throws overboard, which catches on the outside of the ship and menacingly swings back and forth in front of Rollo's porthole. The underwater sequence is another classic, with the stoic Rollo wearing the huge diving suit and helmet,
wrestling an octopus, using a swordfish to duel with another swordfish, and clipping a wire with a lobster's claw. THE NAVIGATOR may not be Keaton's greatest overall film, but it's arguably his most comically inventive and imaginative, representing the purest example of his character and the art
of silent pantomime.
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