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It's not often that a movie prop inspires a great film but that's certainly the case with The Navigator (1924), a silent comedy often ranked alongside The General (1927) as one of Buster Keaton's undisputed masterpieces. The project began when Keaton's technical assistant, Fred Gabourie, spotted The Buford, an ocean liner on loan to director Frank Lloyd during the filming of The Sea Hawk (1924). Keaton had wanted to return to a nautical theme ever since the success of his two-reel comedy The Boat (1921) and The Buford provided the perfect opportunity. The five hundred foot cruiser, which was formerly used by the U.S. government to deport anarchists (Emma Goldman was among them) to Europe during the Red Scare of 1919, was promptly leased for $25,000 dollars from the Alaskan-Siberian Navigation Company - at which point, Keaton's three screenwriters (Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, Joseph Mitchell) had to concoct a storyline around it.
Havez was the first to propose a scenario: "I want a rich boy and a rich girl who never had to lift a finger, always someone to wait on 'em - houses full of butlers, maids, valets, chauffeurs. I put these two beautiful, spoiled brats - the most helpless people in the world - adrift on a ship, all alone. A dead ship. No lights, no steam." (from Keaton by Rudi Blesh). Keaton bought the premise but the real challenge was to create a satisfactory climax which didn't involve the sinking of The Buford. When he sank the yacht in his two-reeler The Boat, audiences appeared genuinely upset by the destruction so he vowed not to do that again. Instead he came up with an ingenious plot twist involving a deep-sea diving suit, cannibals and a submarine rescue. The first half of the film was no less inventive with Buster and the girl (played by Kathryn McGuire) wandering the huge deserted ship separately, unaware of each other's presence until telltale signs - a discarded cigarette butt, the sound of footsteps - compel them both to search the decks for signs of life.
Since The Navigator opened with a prologue involving spies and foreign intrigue, Keaton decided it would be best to have a director well versed in drama handle this segment so Donald Crisp was hired. Crisp had been directing films since 1914 and had served as D. W. Griffith's assistant on The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919) but is better known as an actor today, having appeared in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Lassie, Come Home (1943). Despite being hired to direct the "serious" scenes in The Navigator, Crisp focused instead on gags and comedic material which wasn't his strength or part of his assignment. As a result, most of Crisp's work was reshot after he left the production and the only evidence of his involvement is a brief scene where we see his angry face glaring at Keaton from an oil portrait.
Most of the filming of The Navigator was done in Avalon Bay off the coast of Catalina Island with the cast and crew living on The Buford for the ten week shoot. The famous underwater sequence, where Buster dons a deep-sea diving suit to repair the sinking ship, was first scheduled for shooting in the Riverside municipal pool with Buster doing his own stunt work. This proved to be too problematic (the pool buckled and cracked under the extra water weight) and the waters off Catalina were off limits due to poor visibility during fish spawning season. Instead, the sequence was shot in the freezing waters of Lake Tahoe over a four week period. According to Rudi Blesh in Keaton, "So glacial was the water that Buster could stay down only a few minutes at a time and then had to be hauled up and revived with straight bourbon. Then the extreme cold began impeding the photography. Due to the cameraman's body heat, the glass windows of the diving bell fogged up on the inside. So the bell had to be refrigerated inside by ice piled in the corners. But this also refrigerated the cameramen, who then had to be pulled up with Buster for bourbon. Finally, arctic outfits - fur parkas and gloves - had to be requisitioned for the cameramen."
The Navigator proved to be Keaton's biggest commercial success, firmly establishing him as an important comedy director alongside his peers Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. In fact, the film prefigures Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) with its depiction of a little man at the mercy of machines and massive automation; nowhere is this more evident than the scene where the couple attempt to prepare a breakfast for two in the ship's mechanized kitchen designed for five hundred people. Film critic Pauline Kael wrote that The Navigator was "arguably, Buster Keaton's finest - but amongst the Keaton riches can one be sure? What isn't subject to debate is that this movie....is one of the greatest comedies ever made." She also noted Keaton's delight in "playing with the abstract possibilities of the film image the way a violin virtuoso uses his fiddle." Even Keaton counted The Navigator as a personal favorite among his films, along with The General.
Producer: Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck
Director: Donald Crisp, Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell
Cinematography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley
Film Editing: Buster Keaton
Music: Robert Israel
Cast: Buster Keaton (Rollo Treadway), Frederick Broom (John OBrien), Kathryn McGuire (Betsy OBrien), Clarence Burton (spy), H.N. Clugston (spy).
by Jeff Stafford