The Navigator


The Navigator is great comedy. Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire are a young rich couple cast adrift on a deserted ocean liner. Never having to fend for themselves before, they must suddenly think about survival. They must learn to accept technology that webs them: Noticing supplies have been stored in mammoth size, they set up a mad pulley system with which to do their cooking, and they sleep on makeshift beds in the steam rooms of the ship.

Taking mollycoddles out of their natural space allows Keaton to send up helpless naivete. Yet it remains doubtful as to whether these characters mature. Perhaps this is as it should be — for Keaton, lean surrealist that he is, keeps both the viewer and the character locked in tittering suspense. In a world of perpetual (if slight) imbalance, as flukes and near-misses occur with unanticipated regularity, any sense is nonsense (sort of what historians call the “Keaton Curve”).

Keaton never lingers on a moment, an object. Neither his cinematography nor his editing is rushed. The prop-scattered premise is such that anything more than a modest amount of directorial technique would sap our enjoyment. Thus, he allows the anarchic absurdity of the conflict to unfold with seeming naturalness.

Craft is outlandish and concise. Persona and plot are cleanly interwoven. They merge into an utterly clipped and distinct style.

A counterbalance between an even presentation of a skewed universe, the film is full of spontaneous amusements. On the one hand, it’s a vehicle for the stone-faced Keaton: a plucky but luckless boy-man who pratfalls between a strong, comely gal-pal and props that are gag-induced. Seemingly stoic, he pops with acrobatic verve — the sweet, sustained likability of a housebroken pet. And, by isolating hapless tots among props that are simply shot — and ridiculously oversized props of an even bigger one (the “Navigator” ship itself) — his cinema becomes one of trim surrealism. Added to obsessive inattention (another trademark), hilarity soars.

This is a film whose concrete trappings fit an on-screen persona. Said persona embodies the conflict between humanness (clumsy folly) and a lack thereof (graceful perfection). It shows Keaton’s flair for economizing into live action the tangled paradox of our time. As shown in films like Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), The General (1927), and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), an impulsive fondness toward man and machine alike makes his films refreshingly modern. Semi-detached surrealism affords us the chance to partake of humanity, and to purge ourselves of it through laughter.

The Navigator was Keaton’s most profitable silent film. It only suffers inasmuch as his two-reelers are riotously funnier, and the other feature-lengths much more clever. On the whole, though, Buster transcends the medium. Period.

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