(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Buster Keaton stars as Rollo Treadway, an inexperienced lad of extraordinary wealth – and surprisingly little common sense- who finds himself adrift on The Navigator with no one else on board except for an equally naive girl (Kathryn McGuire). After discovering each other’s presence in an ingenious ballet of unintentional hide-and-seek, the couple resourcefully fashion a home for themselves aboard the derelict boat, in spite of their unfamiliarity with the tools of domesticity.
– From DVD Production Notes
While watching The Navigator I became confused. For the first twenty minutes I thought, “Why do I own this?” Then the rest of the plot unfolded- a succession of mishaps and gags that reminded me why. I kind of fell in love with it all over again.
Running a mere 59 minutes, the film may be considered short or “small,” which is how some would describe its star. But just like Keaton it shouldn’t be underestimated, and what it’s trying to say- at least from my point of view- is just as relevant today as it was 90 years ago.
In a nutshell, The Navigator is about growing up. In this case growing up is a matter of life and death, and the outlook is pretty grim. Rollo Treadway is one of Keaton’s quintessential “types”: a well-meaning but naive and entitled rich kid. Half of the time he isn’t aware of his own surroundings, let alone how to provide for himself. He is blissfully and hopelessly oblivious.
In this case Rollo’s situation is impossible to ignore, even for him. In any other film it would be a tension-filled death sentence. Remember Open Water (2003)? Well, this is kind of the same thing, give or take a boat.
Fortunately this is a comedy, as bleak as its situations can be. Keaton broadens its dire circumstances to make some very funny and dramatic set pieces. He uses space, the occasional random object, timing and circumstances to help you forget just how terrible things are. After all, Rollo is trapped on an abandoned ocean liner no one is looking for and his only companion is Betsy O’Brien (McGuire), a girl who has rejected his offer of marriage.
Instead, the film hones in on the two of them sucking at life. Once they realize they’re the only ones on board, it’s quickly established that they might starve to death. For one thing, Rollo doesn’t know how to use a can opener.
In the meantime Betsy makes coffee with four beans and salt water. Even worse, Rollo actually drinks it.
Now that, my friends, is the power of understatement.
So if neither of these pampered ne’r-do-wells can boil an egg (and I mean this literally), how are they going to survive stranded on a boat? The answers don’t play out smoothly, although their survival tactics are a marvel to watch. In the process they learn to face things together, including one of the funniest sleepless nights I’ve ever seen. There is a bit where Betsy accidentally gores Rollo’s face during a scare- one of my favorite moments in the film.
Of course, he takes it like a gentleman.
This brings me to another aspect of The Navigator that is more than amusing. Although Keaton isn’t known for being a romantic lead, his Rollo is really, really into Betsy, being as resourceful and accommodating as he can to make her happy. To say he suffers for his devotion would be an understatement. From trying to deal the saddest deck of cards to risking his own life, he does whatever it takes without complaint. And forget about recognition.
Let me just say one thing to the women who read this. If a guy lets you use him as a rowboat, then he’s into you.
Don’t know what I mean? Well, you’ll just have to see it to believe it.
Not surprisingly, The Navigator has an ingenious way of making each situation more ludicrous than the next. The ending is no exception, and in spite of its racial stereotyping it features amazing performances and stunts from its supporting players. And there’s hordes of them, taking over the screen with enough power and energy for three films. I’ve never seen anything like it.
However, as the film drew to a close I found myself not thinking so much about Rollo and Betsy’s final struggle, but just how constant their struggles had been. What I appreciate is that there isn’t a moment where you see them feeling sorry for themselves- they simply move on to finding another solution. I came to view The Navigator as a testament to becoming self-sufficient and not giving up.
In fact, I began to see parts of myself and others in Rollo and Betsy, people being dealt an unexpected hand and… well, basically making the best of it. When the going gets tough you have get inventive, sometimes with little to no instruction on what you’ll be doing next.
This, of course, is central to The Navigator. And let me tell you, I saw a lot of people I know in this face.
I’ve said time and time again that what I like the most about my generation is that I don’t hear anyone complaining, I hear them coming up with ideas.
It’s strange to see that in a film made so long ago, but it made me love The Navigator even more.