The Navigator (1924)

Anchors Aweigh!

In my estimation, The Navigator is Buster Keaton’s funniest film and the finest example of his use of physical space as he treats the film frame as his theatrical stage. Gags such as his “long walk” home or the intimidating painting of director Donald Crisp waving back and forth at the ship window are immaculately timed and staged. Or take my favourite gag in the picture in which Keaton is attacked by a swordfish while deep-sea diving and then proceeds to use it as a sword against another oncoming swordfish. It’s such innocent humour and the obviously fake swordfish props plus the fact that he even goes to the effort of bringing down a “Men At Work” sign with him just makes it funnier – It’s images like these which tickle my funny bone even thinking about it.

The Navigator 2

Errol Flynn eat your heart out!

The Navigator was filmed onboard the USAT Buford, a former warship which Keaton and his crew had free reign to use during the production of The Navigator, and take advantage of it they did, making the boat a character in itself. With rear projection yet to be a thing in 1924, all the nautical antics are filmed onboard the vessel

The Navigator was one of the several films in which Keaton plays a spoiled, entitled brat who can’t do anything for himself in the role of Rollo Treadway. After Rollo observes a happy, newlywed couple (in an early example of black casting in which race is irrelevant), he proposes to Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) out of the blue only to be unsurprisingly turned down. A series of mishaps later finds the two alone at sea onboard The Navigator. Betsy is on an equal footing with Rollo, with her character also coming from the same, privileged, sheltered upbringing as Rollo, contributing to the survival of the helpless duo.

The Navigator

The cinematography in The Navigator is some of the finest in the Keaton filmography with its evocative lighting and some gorgeous shots. One such shot and one of the film’s blink and you’ll miss it gags, in the first scene which features Rollo and Betsy in their sailor costumes, notice how their shadows on the wall emanating from the candles they’re holding creates a silhouette of Betsy giving Rollo a kiss on the cheek with his arms around her, even though they’re not engaged in any such action. Likewise  during the sequence in which Keaton and McGuire are running through the ship in parallel tandem, notice the smile on McGuire’s face as she comes close to the camera. One the film’s of odder gags however involves a gramophone playing Wilfred Green’s Asleep In the Deep. With this being a silent movie, the lyrics appear on screen rather than being audible to the viewer in a gag which would have been better suited to a talkie.

When the seafaring duo approach the island of cannibals, it’s the closest a Keaton film actually comes to being scary in a horror sense, with Noble Johnson playing the chief cannibal – always a striking screen presence. This encounter leads to one of the greatest and most suspenseful endings in film history – well in this viewer’s most humble of opinions anyway. I don’t know if it would work for me if I saw the film the first time now, as when I initially watched The Navigator I was naïve enough in my film-watching experience for it to take me by surprise – and I will never forget it.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

swashathon-2-robin-hood

Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Could there be a more enchanting silent adventure than The Thief of Bagdad? – A film which is enormously pleasurable, fun, captivating and relaxing to watch. Even at the lengthy running time, there was never a dull moment and in my opinion is far superior to the 1940 version. The film has a dream-like state, one which I’m happy to see go on and on. This is a rare film which I feel you can pop into at any point and watch from there.

The Thief of Bagdad has a straightforward message which is literally spelled out in the stars at both the beginning and end of the film; “Happiness must be earned”. The film also opens with a verse from The Koran; “Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three World!”. The remainder of the film, however, portrays the religion of Islam in a non-proselytizing manner. The film isn’t afraid to show the extent of slavery in the Islamic world of the time, likewise, the thief himself isn’t big into faith and even dismisses Allah as a myth in a Mosque right in front of worshipers. What’s particularly interesting about this scene is the Imam (Charles Belcher) prevents the worshipers from attacking the thief after he makes his comments. Islam is touted as the so-called “Religion of Peace” and this is at least symbolised in this scene. The Thief’s distaste of religion doesn’t last though as he later asks the Imam to be his catalyst in his transformation (“Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it”). Anyone who grew up associating Bagdad with bombs and terrorism, seeing a movie which refers to Bagdad (or Baghdad as other sources spell it) as “dream city of the ancient east” is surreal to see. What happened to this dream city? Did such a place ever really exist or is it just a fictional fantasy?

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the silent era and that money sure went to good use. William Cameron Menzies’ huge, D.W. Griffith like sets are a marvel to behold in their grandiosity and opulence. There’s so much going in many shots with people moving in the background and doing their own thing. Like other silent epics, The Thief of Bagdad is a movie of predominantly long shots which offer a voyeuristic like insight into this fantasy world. Not to mention many shots like a 2D platformer video game, so feel free to hold a controller while watching the movie and pretend to play away.

Julanne Johnston’s role as the Princess is very limited as she isn’t given a huge amount to do. However, the real stand out female performance is Anna May Wong at the Mongolian slave girl, a real toxic sexual siren. She acts as an insider for the villain of the film, the Mongolian Prince in helping him take over the city. Although considering she is a slave at the hands of a foreign power and the Mongolian Princes’ seizing of the city could ensure her freedom, I can empathise with her character. She is last seen telling the Mongolian Prince to escape with the Princess on the flying carpet all while one of her fellow slaves sees her doing this; the viewer is left to decide what happens to her character. The Mongolian Prince himself does not have much to his personality other than being overtly evil but is delightfully evil all the same while giving off the Fu Manchu vibes.

Like Errol Flynn who would come after him, on-screen Douglas Fairbanks projects a real lust for life. He is a marvel to watch with his athletic prowess, feline grace as well as his ability to give the middle finger to the laws of gravity and physics; and nice pecks too. Like some of the great silent comics, he also displays lateral thinking skills. Just looks at the scene in which he creates a makeshift pulley out of a turban, a chair leg and a donkey in order that he can get up to a balcony and steal some food. If his later films are anything to go by, Raoul Walsh was a great director of action. The Thief of Bagdad is a movie full of glorious action set pieces full of those oh so glorious “how’s he going to get out of this?” moments.

The fantasy element of The Thief of Bagdad really kicks in during the final hour. The special effects on display are not of the delightfully fake kind but are actually very convincing. The creature in the Valley on the Monsters or that creature in the sea are definitely something to be feared, or the Enchanted Tree – very eerie stuff. The movie’s two big money shots, on the other hand, do not disappoint. The first being the shot of the thief flying away on the winged horse, one of those cinematic images that always stay with you. The second of these being the first instance in which we see the flying carpet in action. You’ll believe a man can fly…on a carpet.