Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Navigator (1924)Buster Keaton was among the foremost of that race of performers, who flourished especially in the early days of Hollywood, who possessed such a singular collection of talents that his films are necessarily organized around their display, and are not conceivable without him in the lead role. Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire, the Marx Brothers and Judy Garland are other people who fit this type of the indispensible star, which is one that doesn't really seem to exist anymore; movies featuring rock stars as themselves I suppose are a relation to these types of movies, but even these are more reliant on the stars' pre-existing celebrity cult than any unique talents employed in the movie. There are of course famous acting performances without which it is difficult to imagine the movies having the impact they have on people--Brando in Streetcar, James Dean's movies, many of Jimmy Stewart's celebrated roles, Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian--but all of these films, even Conan, would still have been written and made even without the stars with whom they are so closely identified. Buster Keaton movies do not exist, and are probably not conceived of as existing, without Buster Keaton. When one considers how repetitive and done to death most things in the arts are, the remarkable thing about the Keaton movies 85 years on is that even when you have something kind of like it, and you sort of know what is coming, you still have not quite seen anything exactly like it, that is exactly as satisfying, which is why he continues to have an impressively wide appeal among serious people and naifs alike even in our time.

I did not enjoy The Navigator quite as much as I did College, which is the only other Buster Keaton movie I have seen to date. I think this is due in part to the circumstance that I have a terror of boats and water generally, so the comic possibilities of drowning or being adrift at sea which the movie has to play upon come off to me perhaps somewhat darker than they do other people. Of course where I live there are ponds and lakes and rivers everywhere, often coming very close up by the road, especially during the rainy seasons such as now and in late fall, where there are also often no guardrails, so I have frequent occasion for Ted Kennedy-style flashbacks and apprehensions. I am a little better on ferries, which I sort of like to take, though I still worry slightly when I am on deck about myself or one of the children falling overboard. The film starts off with two inspired jokes right off the bat, the line where he turns to his valet and says "Wilson (or whatever), I've decided I want to get married. (pause). Today." Of course he has no girlfriend but he has someone in mind to propose to, so he calls for the car, which pulling up to the curb, he gets into it with great ceremony, at which the car pulls out, does a U-turn in the middle of the blissfully empty Los Angeles street (internet photos reveal that the street and the house are still there today, but traffic is much heavier, and pulls up in front of the house directly across the street. At this point I was thinking, this is going to be really great. And it is good, but the various gags on the ship, while often ingenious, don't always strike me as being as funny as other situations do.

To this point also I have to say I am more of a Chaplin than a Keaton fan--these two camps forming one of those strange divisions of life across which there seems to be little commonality or fraternization. Chaplin to me is the fuller human, and brings more of it really is like to be a person into his movies. Keaton may better represent some vision of modernity though. I know he was admired by Samuel Beckett, as well as other modernist intellectual types. His face really was striking, and a work of art in itself, which I don't have to tell you is rare, though it is a quality one notices in celebrated actors. Laurence Olivier's face made something of a similar impression, that of having been deliberately worked by the mind above all into the rather extraordinary and specific appearance it made on the screen.

The tape I had of this movie also included two shorts that kept with the maritime theme, The Boat and The Love Nest. The Boat is about a husband, a wife and their two sons who are a boat that springs a leak in the middle of the night during a tempest. It is actually kind of scary. The Love Nest is set on some kind of cargo ship. The captain is a tyrant who grabs people by the collar and tosses them overboard for things like spilling coffee while pouring it. Which is actually kind of funny.

I often think when watching these old films that my wife missed her true calling, which was to be a 1920s silent film actress, since about half the starlets of this time are of a similar height and body type, and have similar hairstyle and facial structures, which for the most part you don't see so much on television today. Now I don't want to come off as being like either one of those born-again Christians or nerds with a mail order bride from the third world that everyone makes fun of, the guys who are always proclaiming on the internet how hot and incredible their wives are and thanking Jesus for sending them an angel from heaven and so on. As was said of Samuel Johnson's mother, "she knew her son's value" but apparently did not talk about it much. And besides, perhaps not everyone will think it a wonderful thing to look like a 1920s movie star, though I will admit I do think it so. Now among the actresses I have seen lately that reinforced this impression that was made on me some time ago, Lya Da Putti looks like Mrs Bourgeois Surrender/Sabrina/Sarah whatever you want to call her while moving about and doing things in Variete, though not so much in the stills, but the dear one's real doppelganger is the lady who plays the wife in The Boat and several other Buster Keaton classics, the beautiful Sybil Seely, whom one internet commentator I have read considers to be "a whole world of hot" even today. In the film, and other clips available on the internet the resemblance sometimes is really uncanny. I realize this is of little interest to the general public, but some may like the comparison of the pictures. So first we have Sybil Seely, circa 1920:

Mrs Bourgeois Surrender circa 1994:

People love Buster Keaton. Lots of videos made to his work, which does lend itself to this kind of montage very well. I don't have time to watch through all of them. This one looks pretty good.

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