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.
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 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.