It takes creativity to overcome our limitations. How do you tell a story and keep people laughing for an hour when you can’t even speak? Some people were very good at this and had it down to a fine art by the time the human voice was heard in films. Buster Keaton’s The General is very arguably the best film ever made. One of the old chestnuts of film making is “show, don’t tell” and it’s as relevant today as it ever was, considering the recent plague of over-blown nonsense like The Lord of the Rings and pretty much everything from Christopher Nolan. The Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner shorts are timeless. WALL-E was a transcendent film until somebody spoke. Up (the Pixar animation) was possibly even better in its short introduction… but it didn’t save its best for last, either. The recent silent comedy The Artist was hugely entertaining. One of the strengths of the original Star Wars films was how they showed you their odd, mysterious world while keeping their traps shut.
In The Navigator Buster Keaton is a blundering idiot. He’s rich but was born into money. Servants do everything for him. He barely knows how to eat without help from his ever-present helpers. What might happen if such a man were cast adrift and had to fend for himself?
It’s funny. Whatever your entry point is to this film, it speaks your language. It’s good clean, innocent fun and since physical comedy is such a fundamental building block there’s something here for everyone who can see, whatever their age.
The visuals are striking. They have to be. I didn’t notice the beauty of the title still until looking back through the film afterwards. Shots are generally quite static and sometimes framed with an artistic consideration. As with the lack of speech, this film knows how to use its weaknesses as strengths. It doesn’t suffer from the tyranny of choice many modern films have to contend with. Even so, its makers would likely know when and when not to use more modern camera techniques if they were still around today.
I don’t have many yardsticks for measuring silent films right now. The Navigator is nowhere near as refined or perfectly-considered as The General or The Artist. I found it a lot funnier than Modern Times. Some would rate that as the better film because it tries to say something. I found it a rather disappointing film that didn’t deliver on any promises that weren’t slapstick-related. All that really needs to be said about The Navigator is that it’s funny and accessible. Whether you’ve watched more films than most or you’ve never seen one in your life it should hit the spot.