The Navigator Review
This DVD is part of Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton's silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn't expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score - in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
One of Buster Keaton's biggest box-office hits, and his own personal second favourite film (after The General), The Navigator (1924) continued the amazing run of artistic triumphs that began with Our Hospitality and Sherlock Jr - and if it lacks the visual beauty and dramatic complexity of the other major masterpieces, it more than makes up for it by being arguably his single funniest feature.
Essentially, The Navigator is a feature-length excuse for a wonderfully inventive series of sight gags, including some of the most inspired even he ever came up with. Keaton got the idea for the film after being given the opportunity to hire a huge steamship, which he rechristened the Navigator - and then proceeded to wring just about every conceivable ship-based joke out of it.
Keaton plays Rollo Treadway, one of his spoiled millionaire types, who for various convoluted reasons ends up stranded on the boat after foreign anarchists loosen its moorings and send it out to sea. Also on the boat is his would-be sweetheart Betsy, the daughter of the Navigator's owner, who just happened to be on board looking for her father (who at the time was being kidnapped on shore).
Initially blithely unaware of each other's presence (one of the most justly celebrated scenes in Keaton's entire output has them wandering around the boat and managing to miss each other by split seconds every time - a small miracle of choreography and comic timing), once they finally get together they have to cope with survival on a ship designed for a rather larger crew than just two - another memorable sequence is in the kitchen where they try to cook a small-scale meal using cooking equipment intended for hundreds at a time.
Finally, when they've rigged up a whole series of gadgets designed to make their lives easier, they adjust to life on the ocean waves… until they run aground off an island populated by savage cannibals. The politically correct are unlikely to be wildly enthusiastic about these scenes, but they certainly make for a rousing climax, as Keaton's mechanical ingenuity is stretched to the limit in terms of coming up with makeshift weapons to fend off their attackers.
Happily, Kino have done the film full justice, with a pin-sharp transfer of a lovely, beautifully preserved print. Inevitably, there are a few age-related spots and scratches, and unlike some of the other prints in the collection it hasn't been tinted, but all in all this is one of the better prints in Kino's Keaton series. Robert Israel's music, too, is very effective, based on various nautical themes (including the well-known Blue Peter sailor's hornpipe). There are eleven chapter stops, which is plenty for an hour-long film.
The Boat (1921) is one of Keaton's best-known shorts, and apparently his own second favourite after Cops. It revolves around his attempts at taking to the sea with his family (wife, two kids) in his home-made boat, the Damfino - and he refuses to give up despite all the problems that he faces getting it into the sea in the first place: he destroys his home getting the boat out, he sinks his car in attempting to launch it, and when it's finally launched it stays afloat for roughly ten seconds (leading to one of the most famous images in Keaton's output: of him standing indomitably at the prow of his boat as the waters rise higher and higher).
Eventually, though, he gets it afloat, and the rest of the film concerns his attempts at maintaining a normal family life in the face of everything nature can throw at him. He tries to hang a picture on the wall, inadvertently puncturing the hull, an attempt at a civilised domestic meal ends in disaster, and when the boat is caught up in a violent storm, chaos ensues to the point where even Keaton has to admit defeat and herd his family into a tiny lifeboat and make a break for safety.
In many ways, The Boat was a dry run (if that's the right term here) for The Navigator, the crucial difference being that the boat in the latter is much bigger and the gags correspondingly staged on a much greater scale - though it's fascinating seeing them being developed here in embryonic form.
Sadly, this isn't one of the better prints in Kino's collection. Though at least three quarters of the film is perfectly watchable, the first reel is marred by some very severe chemical damage and jump cuts that play havoc with the original pacing. That said, the exterior night scenes are very effective, not least because they've been tinted blue for added atmosphere. Full marks, though, go to Gaylord Carter's multi-instrumental music score, which is one of the more imaginative entries in this collection, drawing extensively on familiar nautical motifs (everything from 'A Life on the Ocean Wave' to the storm from Rossini's 'William Tell' Overture).
The Love Nest
The Love Nest (1923) was Keaton's last short for over a decade, and it's a real curio. Continuing the nautical theme of this DVD, it's set entirely at sea, at first in a tiny boat ironically named 'Cupid' (the irony being that Keaton has set sail precisely because his loved one has deserted him), and then in a rather larger whaling vessel bearing the equally ironic name of 'The Love Nest', whose sadistic captain has the habit of flinging his men over the side at the slightest infraction (tossing a wreath in after them: he keeps a handy pile on deck for precisely this purpose).
But despite plenty of slapstick elements (which are mostly in the first half), what most stands out is an overwhelming sense of melancholy - Keaton's character seems downright suicidal much of the time (in none of the other shorts does he come quite so close to death so many times), and what sticks in the mind are scenes of a genuinely haunting beauty: the majesty of the whale rising slowly to the surface; the scene at night with Buster the boat's only remaining inhabitant; the whole film is suffused with an overwhelming sense of desolation and despair that's quite unlike what you'd expect from a silent comedy.
The print itself has clearly seen better days - there are a fair number of jump cuts, and vertical streaks running down it, plus a couple of sequences that are rather worse than that - but none of it is so bad that it seriously affects one's appreciation, and it has some superbly effective night sequences, which like the ones in The Boat have been tinted deep blue for maximum impact. According to Kino, this film was thought lost for many years, and it's a welcome rediscovery.
All in all, this is one of the better DVDs in Kino's Keaton collection, not least because the two shorts are well worth watching as well, and along with The General I'd recommend it as an ideal starting point for Keaton beginners.