Fred Gabourie (affectionately known as "Gabe") was Buster Keaton's hard-working art director, responsible for sets, props and special effectsquite a job when working for a boss so devoted to scale and authenticity. Gabe's first assignment was a 1922 short comedy called The Boat, and he had endless difficulties with the little craft of the title. According to biographer Rudi Blesh, he vowed to to supply his boss with a *real* boat someday. Two years later, Gabe chanced to discover the S.S. Buford, an ocean liner on her way to the scrap-heap. He alerted Keaton, who jumped at the chance to rent the ship. Then he and his creative team sat down to build a story around their new prop. What they came up with was beautifully simple: a rich young man and the girl he wants to marry are stranded on an ocean liner, which is adrift on the open ocean without power or crew. That's it. They have to learn how to surviveneither has ever made a cup of coffee beforeand then cope with damage to the ship and an attack by cannibal islanders. It is, unfortunately, necessary to set up a reason for this situation, and the solution (an anarchist plot combined with a mix-up on the docks) is implausible and marred by hammy acting by the plotterswhich Buster blamed on his co-director Donald Crisp, whom he'd hired for his dramatic skills. (To his dismay, Crisp wanted to meddle with the comedy, and Keaton regretted hiring him.) The scenes introducing Buster's character, Rollo Treadway, are charming. Rollo is sedated by his wealth, docile and helpless. To get to the house across the street, where his girl (Kathryn McGuire) lives, he climbs into his chauffeured car and the vehicle makes a U-turn. After the girl has rejected his proposal, he tells his chauffeur that a long walk will do him good, then toddles back across the street. Once the liner (renamed the S.S. Navigator for the film) is adrift in the Pacific, boy and girl both think they are alone on the ship. The scene in which they suspect each other's presence and race around the decks, always just missing each other, is a marvel of choreography, timing, and spatial sophistication. The ship itself is the film's third major character. (Cast and crew lived happily aboard the Buford during filming.) The long white corridors and the maze of decks and stairs resemble an M.C. Escher drawing, and the boilers, funnels, and other nautical machinery provide both a handsome backdrop and raw material for Keaton's favorite kind of mechanical humor. Once they meet, the two socialites attempt to cook breakfast in the ship's galley kitchen, using massive pots and utensils. Watch for Buster's priceless reaction on tasting the coffee made by the girl with three unground beans and seawater. Kathryn McGuire (who also appeared in Keaton's previous film, Sherlock, Jr.) is more comedy partner than love interest, and she makes an excellent foil, with her endearing gawkiness, straight-faced style, and willingness to be the butt of a joke. The clueless seafarers don sailor suits, but they have many difficulties finding a secure place to sleep on the eerie vessel. Finally despairing of rest, they decide to play cards; in a tight close-up of his hands, Buster shuffles a wet deck of cards that turn to mush in his nimble, oblivious fingers. This small moment is a gem of pure physical comedy. No sooner have our heroes gotten everything ship-shapefilling the kitchen with patented Keaton contraptions to grind coffee, open cans and boil eggsthan the ship runs aground, and Buster has to put on a diving suit to mend the damage. The underwater sequence was a nightmare to film. Rejecting studio tanks because he wanted to use a full-size mock-up of the ship's propeller, Keaton wound up filming at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, where the glass-clear water was so cold that he and the cameramen could only stay down for short periods of time. None of the difficulties are visible in the zany, slow-motion gags of his sequence, as Buster uses a lobster to clip wires, grabs a swordfish to fence with another swordfish, washes and dries his hands underwater. Buster's subtly expressive acting while encumbered in the huge diving suit is a marvel. The grand finale of the film is an invasion of the boat by cannibal hordes; in all the swirl of crowds, the highlight is Buster's encounter with a tiny toy cannon that chases him around the deck. Compared to Keaton's other masterpieces, The Navigator is richer in gags and weaker in drama. If it has a flaw, it's that it lacks the warm heart found in The General or Our Hospitality, the sweet and soulful quality that marks Buster at his very best. But I wouldn't argue with the audience member I overheard coming out of a recent screening of The Navigator, who said, "That's as close to perfect as anything needs to be."
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Two spoiled rich people find themselves trapped on an empty passenger ship.
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April 3, 2019