Tag Archives: 1924

THE NAVIGATOR (1924) AND FROZEN NORTH (1922)

The Navigator (1924) was ‘s biggest commercial success and remains one of his most popular features. Co-directed by Donald Crisp, it is a bona fide classic.

Affluent society heir Rollo (Keaton) wakes up one morning, sees a newlywed couple outside of his window, and, bored to tears, decides he wants to get married. Love, of course, never enters the picture. He starts planning a regal honeymoon and eventually remembers that he needs to ask the bride-to-be, another socialite named Betsy (, Keaton’s leading lady from Sherlock Jr.).

The super rich were a favorite target for 1920s audiences, which certainly helped this film’s box office appeal. (Yes, once upon a time, the one percent were not adulated by Hollywood. Rather, they were ridiculed because that ancient, naive generation actually believed that people were not defined by dyed green paper or quantity of possessions).

Betsy turns down Rollo’s proposal of marriage and, after a series of circumstances, they find themselves aboard the adrift schooner, the Navigator. When they are left to fend for theirselves, without the aid of a servant, pandemonium is the result. Far from the idyllic honeymoon he imagined, Rollo is forced to assist in fixing breakfast. Much to his dismay, he discovers that a butcher knife is not the best way to open a can of food. Betsy learns how not to make coffee. Unground beans and seawater do not a good brew make.

Still from The Navigator (1924)An expressionistic play on shadows, via clever use of candles, reveals the consummating kiss Rollo and Betsy will never have. This is but one example we find of Keaton pushing the art of film in ways no other American filmmaker was doing at the time.

Co-director Donald Crisp makes an unbilled cameo, in the form of a sinister sea captain’s picture inadvertently placed in front of a porthole, which predictably gives Rollo a bad case of late night jitters. (With the advent of sound, Crisp abandoned directing and became a much sought after character actor, appearing in such films as Mutiny on the Bounty, JezebelHow Green Was My Valley, and National Velvet). Roman candles, soggy cards, a rainstorm, and sleeping arrangements round off a disastrous “wedding night.”

The first night over, Betsy and Rollo have brilliantly overcome the menial chores, which of course makes way for larger-scale challenges to come. A master of the slow burn, Keaton, as usual, revels in the second half. Nothing less than cannibals craving white meat is their first obstacle. (Unfortunately, one area in which audiences of the time were indeed embarrassingly naive was in their racial stereotypes, and Keaton was not exempt from that).

In order to fix a leaky ship drifting towards the excited natives, Rollo and Betsy pull out the deep-sea divers manual. Down in the murky ocean below, Rollo meets a couple of swordfish and, in the film’s most iconic highlight, he seizes one fish and engages in an underwater fencing duel with the second.

The showdown with the cannibals is worthy of a Loony Tune, and a grand finale gag is amongst the best of silent cinema. Aside from the stereotypes, The Navigator is remarkably contemporary. McGuire is a near-perfect and sweet foil for Keaton, breathlessly matching him. In one of their best scenes together, she straddles him (in his diving gear), using him as a lifeboat, and paddles them back to the temporary safety of the ship.

The Navigator was among a generous crop of 2012 Kino Keaton Blu-ray releases. It is also available in Kino’s indispensable “The Art of Buster Keaton” DVD box set.

The Frozen North (1922) is a seventeen minute short, co-directed by frequent Keaton collaborator Edward. F. Cline. It is another of Keaton’s venture into informal surrealism. Unfortunately, it is not an entirely successful effort, which may be due, in part, to its missing three minutes of footage. Frozen North is Keaton’s parody of western actor . Hart had publicly condemned Keaton’s friend and mentor, Roscoe Arbuckle, during the comedian’s famous murder trial. Upon seeing Frozen North, Hart was incensed and did not speak to Keaton for years.

Keaton plays the villain, a caricature of Hart’s screen persona: melodramatic machismo (cigarette flip), questionable ethics (two-gun firing), and saccharine pathos (tears and all). Keaton uses a cardboard cutout of Hart in order to rob locals in a tavern, then brutally murders a kissing couple, only to realize that he has shot the wrong wife in the wrong house. Keaton callously dances with his wife’s unconscious body, vacuums an igloo, plays tennis with snowballs, disguises himself as Sam the Snowman, and is envisioned as Erich von Stroheim by a woman who he is trying to rape. Keaton also pays brief  homage to vamp Theda Bara, but it all turns out to be a dream.

The humor in Frozen North is atypical with Keaton at his blackest, bleakest, and strangest. With its Yukon scenes, it clearly influenced ‘s The Gold Rush (1925). Kino’s restoration is as good as it can be for a film that only exists in a dissipated, fragmented state. It is available on 2012′s equally essential Buster Keaton: Short Films Collection 1920-1923.”

SHERLOCK JR. (1924)

Sherlock Jr.Poster

 never aligned himself with the Surrealists or the avant-garde. His late in life experience acting in Samuel Becket’s Film (1965) proved a negative experience for the actor. Yet, Keaton possessed aesthetic qualities akin to Surrealist tenets, which made him a revered figure in that movement. Together with Playhouse (1921) andFrozen North (1922), Sherlock Jr. (1924) is one of Keaton’s most pronounced ventures into slapstick Surrealism.

At 45 minutes Sherlock Jr. is often listed as both a short and a feature. By 1924 standards it was considered a feature. Either way, it is perhaps the most innovative comedy of the entire silent era and it retains a formidable reputation among Keaton’s body of work. Being one of the earliest films about film, Sherlock Jr. blurs distinctions between real life and the dream world of cinema, but the phantasmagoric qualities always serve a linear narrative.

Sherlock Jr. Keaton (poster 1924)

In this meticulously crafted, compact film, Keaton is a movie projectionist who dreams of being a detective. Keaton is trying to win the affections of a girl (Kathryn McGuire), but has a dastardly rival (Ward Crane). In attempt to steal McGuire from Keaton, Crane frames our protagonist as a thief. With his “How To Be A Detective” book in hand, Keaton follows closely on the heels of Crane.

The basic theme of any Keaton film is an everyday man attempting to win a pretty girl. Naturally, he encounters unrequited love and then must overcome insurmountable odds to win the heroine’s affections, which he usually does. The consummation of hero and heroine is of no interest, it is in the journey to true love that we encounter the joy of Keaton’s cinematic foreplay. Tensions, triumphs, failures and rebounds populate his promenade.

sherlock jr. Buster Keaton

Keaton, who disavowed any claims of intellectualism, simply was inventive in spicing that repeated dish. Yet, Keaton’s interpretation of “spice” was, by any standards, a fearless one. Although he looks the part of a stone faced average Joe, once the projectionist dreams himself into celluloid, he becomes a flawless and imposing detective. Only someone with Keaton’s athletic abilities could have pulled the transition off so brilliantly. Keaton did, however, fracture his neck during the making of the film, which resulted in years of severe migraines. This was one of numerous injuries Keaton sustained throughout his career. In addition to aesthetic muscle flexing, Keaton shows off his virtuoso prowess as a billiard player in a compelling vignette. Despite that, Keaton never fails to remember his primary goal: to be a clown.

One of the funniest and most clever scenes in Sherlock Jr. is its finale in which actors on a fifty-foot screen teach the projectionist how to kiss a girl.

Sherlock Jr. was a substantial influence on ‘s Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

 

PAUL LENI’S WAXWORKS (1924)

Kino International included ‘s 1924 Waxworks in its German Horror Classics collection.  While the usual Kino craftsmanship has gone into remastering and merchandising, the inclusion of Leni’s breakthrough film is a bit of a misclassification.  Waxworks is not a “horror” film.  It is representative of what may possibly be the most experimental period in the medium of film: German .  This style exploded with Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which turned out to be an even more influential film than D.W. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).

WAXWORKS (1924)

Leni was among the apprentice filmmakers and artisans profoundly influenced by Caligari. That inspiration came to fruition in the anthology film Waxworks ( screenplay by Henrik Galeen, also responsible for Golem-1920 and Nosferatu-1922). Leni’s breakthrough film is no mere carbon copy of Caligari.  Indeed, Waxworks is something of a yardstick for what an anthology film should be.  William Dieterle (later an esteemed director whose credits include 1937′s Lifeof Emile Zola, the superior 1939 remake of Hunchback of Notre Dame, and 1940′s Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet) plays several characters, including the poet hired to write an article about wax figures of historical tyrants in a sideshow museum.  This framing sequence segues into a fantastic, carnivalesque omnibus.  In the first segment, Emil Jannings play Al-Raschid.  In this introductory Caliph vignette, Leni’s design work with Max Reinhardt is at its most impressive and expansive.  The ambiance is, paradoxically, both larger than life and remarkably introverted.  Fanciful, intricate roads wind and turn, leading to the Caliph’s aberrant belfry.  Gloom-laden canvases, crackling signs, and a towering wheel are remnants of a spidery, crepuscular  bacchanal.  Caligari‘s design is comparatively static next to this fluid, humorous, and transcendental Arabian tale.

Still from Waxworks (1924) gives a harrowing, anemic performance as Ivan the Terrible.  Angular and clammy, this segment is a paranoid fable which ends with a stark, memorable scene of the scourged despot forever turning the hour glass, convinced of his fate (death by poisoning).  Leni’s use of Eastern Orthodox iconography, inhabiting a shadowy world, is refreshingly and expressively idiosyncratic.  Helmar Lerski’s cinematography, which proved to be a considerable influence on Eistenstein, aggrandizes Ivan’s maniacal state.

The Jack the Ripper finale has been much discussed and is more a sketch than a climax. Werner Krauss plays the infamous Whitechapel serial killer who dominates the shadows, blade in hand, awaiting the poet and his lover.  This surreal whisper was originally intended to lead into a fourth narrative based off Vulpius’ “Rinaldo Rinaldini.”  Although the dreaded captain’s wax likeness can be seen in several scenes, budget restraints forced that narrative to be deleted.

WAXWORKS (VEIDT)

After Waxworks, Hollywood beckoned.  Considering what was to follow in Hitler’s Germany, Leni’s departure from his homeland may have saved the Jewish artist, but, most cruelly, fate prematurely deprived him, and us, of his life and art.