Thursday, April 8, 2010

Two Classic Keatons from 1924: “Sherlock, Jr.” and “The Navigator”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Sherlock, Jr. and The Navigator both stem from the time when Buster Keaton’s career was at its absolute peak, both commercially (The Navigator was his biggest hit in the silent era) and artistically. He made them both for “Buster Keaton Productions,” though unlike Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd he was never well off enough (or cautious enough with his money to become well off enough) to finance his films himself; he still had a money man, Joseph M. Schenck, to answer to; Schenck had lured Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle away from Mack Sennett in 1917 to make independent movies for release through Paramount (thereby making Schenck a pioneer in the practice of producing independently but still seeking major-studio backing for production costs and distribution — which has been the way most films have been made since the death of the studio system).

He’d picked up Keaton when Arbuckle hired him as a comic sidekick (supposedly Keaton came to visit the set of Arbuckle’s first independent film, The Butcher Boy, just because he was curious about how films were made — and Arbuckle put him to work, improvising comedy routines with him), and when Arbuckle graduated to feature-length films (and signed directly with Paramount to make them) Schenck put Keaton to work on a series of two-reel comedies as star and director. Eventually Keaton too moved up to feature-length films — though still relatively short ones (Sherlock, Jr. runs 45 minutes and The Navigator a shade over an hour) — and in the interviews he gave Rudi Blesh in 1965 (a year before his death) Keaton acknowledged that one reason he made Sherlock, Jr. was to have a chance to do the physically impossible gags he’d done in his shorts but which he didn’t feel worked for features. (This was the interview in which Blesh asked Keaton, “How did you come to make a surrealistic film like Sherlock, Jr.?” — and Keaton, who unlike Chaplin disdained any artistic intentions for his work, answered, “I did not mean it to be surrealistic! I just wanted it to look like a dream!”)

Actually the plot of Sherlock, Jr. is a dream — Keaton plays a projectionist in a small-town movie theatre who’s reading a book called How to Be a Detective and fantasizing being a crime-fighter. He’s got a girlfriend (Kathryn McGuire, refreshingly free of the coyness so many silent leading ladies fell into) but there’s also a rival for her affections, a character billed as “The local sheik” (Ward Crane), and this rather worm-eaten Lothario steals the pocket watch of the girl’s father (played by Keaton’s real-life father, Joe) and pawns it to buy the girl a box of chocolates. Then he plants the pawn ticket on Keaton so he will look like the thief, and the girl and her father throw him out of their house and tell him never to come back. A dejected Keaton returns to his job at the theatre and runs the movie Hearts and Pearls — whose opening credit refers to it as “A Veronal Production” (“Veronal” was the name of the first barbiturate sleeping pill ever manufactured, appropriate given what happens next) — and while the film is running he falls asleep, gets up (a ghostly image of Keaton rises out of Keaton’s body, so there’s a real-world Keaton sleeping in the projection booth as well as the dream-world Keaton), walks into the screen of the theatre and enters the world of the movie he’s showing, taking the part of the celebrated detective “Sherlock, Jr.” and setting out to solve the theft of the heroine’s pearl necklace.

After a sequence in which Keaton remains stationary while the background changes (at one point he’s on a coral reef about to dive into the water when the scene changes and he falls head-first into a snow drift), the film settles into a groove of almost constant action and — dare I say it? — surrealistic gags, including one in which Keaton’s assistant Gillette (Ford West, who’s also the manager of the theatre where Keaton works in the real-world framing sequences — and his character is named after William Gillette, the first actor to play Sherlock Holmes), places a round box containing a dress in the window of a building in which Keaton confronts the crooks — and in the middle of a chase sequence Keaton dives through the box and emerges in full drag, wearing the dress we’ve seen earlier. There’s also another sequence in which Keaton, cornered in a dead-end street with seemingly no means of escape, is accosted by a woman street peddler who points to her own chest and the case containing her wares that she’s wearing. She points to the case and Keaton eventually gets the message and escapes by diving through it and emerging through a gate on the other side.

Another sequence shows Keaton on top of a train — the villain has tricked him into getting on a train and he’s running from car to car, and when he finally jumps from the train he leaps onto a water tank, grabs on the pipe that feeds water to the train, pulls it down with his own weight and ends up getting a blast of water from the tank. This sequence wasn’t faked or doubled in any way — Keaton not only did his own stunt work but got the full force of the water on him —and he suffered from blinding headaches the rest of the day, then felt O.K. the next day and got back to work. What he didn’t realize until years later was that he had broken his neck; a decade later Keaton was undergoing a routine medical examination and he was X-rayed, and his doctor saw the X-rays and asked him, “When did you break your neck?” “I never broke my neck,” Keaton said. “Oh yes, you did,” the doctor replied, showing him the X-rays to prove it — and eventually Keaton realized it must have been during the filming of that gag sequence.

What makes Sherlock, Jr. even more remarkable than it looks was that not only did it pre-date all our elaborate modern-day infrastructure of computer-generated imagery but it even preceded the invention of the process screen; in 1924 all special effects had to be done in the camera. There were only two ways to do a film-within-a-film then, and it’s clear Keaton used both of them. One was to mask out the portion of the frame representing the on-screen theatre, film the live action, and then rewind the undeveloped film, mask out everything but the on-screen theatre, and shoot the sequences that were supposed to represent the movie the live-action characters were watching. The other way was to build the theatre set with a hole in it representing the screen and have another group of actors performing simultaneously on another set and playing the characters in the movie-within-the-movie.

Sherlock, Jr. has been a major influence on many filmmakers since — Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo simply inverted its central premise (instead of a projectionist walking into the world of the film he’s showing, Allen had a character in a movie step off the screen and into real life) and the little-remembered Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Action Hero was a Sherlock, Jr. knockoff set in the world of today’s fantasy cinema — and there’s also a connection I hadn’t realized before to The Wizard of Oz, which also presented fantasy action framed as the central character’s dream and involved the people in her real life as characters in her dream as well (a wrinkle added by the screenwriters — in L. Frank Baum’s source novel Dorothy’s journey to Oz was presented as a real event).

Sherlock, Jr. holds up vividly today not only for its imagination but its sheer audacity — indeed, one gag in it (the villains plot to kill Keaton by inviting him to play pool and substituting a bomb for one of the balls) was repeated seriously nine years later in Rowland Brown’s gangster film Blood Money — and the fact that it was made at a time when effects work was in its infancy only makes it more amazing. The Navigator doesn’t rely on effects to the extent Sherlock, Jr. does, but in its own way it’s just as audacious a film.

It starts out with a framing sequence that suggests Keaton was not as apolitical as most people think — the opening titles explain that the fate of two Americans was linked in an unexpected way to a war between two other countries elsewhere in the globe, and the first scene in the film shows the secret agents of one side reacting to the news that the other side has purchased the ship Navigator to use to run arms from the U.S. to the battle front. The agents decide to hijack the Navigator and its crew; they’ll take over the ship before the replacement crew can get on board, set it adrift and “the wind — the tide — and the rocks will do the rest.”

Then we meet our central characters: Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire again, though this time her last name is spelled “Maguire” on the credits), daughter of the shipowner who just sold the Navigator (Frederick Vroom); and Rollo Treadway (Buster Keaton), upper-class twit who has decided he’s going to marry her and has booked a honeymoon cruise for them without the minor little detail of asking her first. When he has his chauffeur drive him to her house — even though they just live across the street from each other — he pops the question and she says, “Certainly not!” (Though some of Keaton’s films, including Sherlock, Jr., cast him as proletarian or working-poor, he also frequently played spoiled upper-class boys — and I’ve often wondered if he cast himself that way to distinguish himself as much from Charlie Chaplin, celebrated for playing the down-and-out “Tramp,” as possible.) Betsy’s dad sends her aboard the Navigator to pick up a few papers he has left there, and Rollo boards the boat by mistake — in one of the concealment gags Keaton loved, an open gate has covered up the “1” in the sign “Pier 12” and so Keaton thinks it’s really “Pier 2,” where the ship he was scheduled to sail on was docked — and through most of the movie it’s just this huge ship and the two of them as the only humans we see.

Keaton was inspired to make The Navigator when he heard that the U.S. government was about to scrap a large ship, the Buford, and he saw the comic possibilities and asked Joseph Schenck to buy the ship for him so he could make a movie on it. Given that the establishing scene involves political chicanery and subversion to set the plot in motion, it’s ironic that the Buford had a checkered political history in real life: it had been used to deport the people caught in the “Palmer Raids” of 1919-1920 — including such well-known American radicals as Emma Goldman, her lover Alexander Berkman and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) co-founder “Big Bill” Haywood, and ship them to the Soviet Union (the man behind the Palmer raids was Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, and his second-in-command was the young J. Edgar Hoover) — and though there’s no evidence that Keaton knew this history or consciously shaped his plot around it, he had two years earlier made the short film Cops, which was clearly inspired by the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago.

Anyway, Rollo and Betsy chase each other around the ship, each dimly aware of another human presence on board but with no idea who that other human might be, and after a brilliantly staged series of near-misses they meet and have the task of figuring out how to survive on an otherwise deserted vessel whose engines aren’t operative. They have to figure out how to make breakfast for two in a kitchen set up to cook for hundreds, and they’re also faced with some frightening happenings at night, including a scary-looking oil painting (of the actor Donald Crisp, whom Keaton hired as co-director on the film and then fired because Crisp, who was supposed to shoot only the dramatic framing scenes, thought he could help with the comedy, and Keaton needed a comic co-director about as much as Jimi Hendrix needed a rhythm guitarist) that Keaton sees pass by his porthole and assumes is a real person. There are also gags involving all the ship’s doors opening and closing as the ship rocks back and forth, and one audacious scene in which the two lovebirds are huddled together on a dark and stormy night and they hear the song “Asleep in the Deep” (courtesy of a phonograph and a Rube Goldberg-like device that has inadvertently started it playing) — sequences that indicate that for all Keaton’s skill at making silent comedy, his art really cried out for sound and he would have been able to adapt to the talkies brilliantly if he hadn’t lost control of his career in the meantime (after the box-office failure of The General — today, ironically, considered Keaton’s masterpiece — Joseph Schenck tightened the reins on Keaton for their next two films together and then sold his contract to MGM, where Keaton chafed under the tight supervision of Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, took to drink and blew his career and his marriage).

The Navigator closes with one of the most audacious gags of all time; after Keaton and McGuire are rescued by a submarine, the sub rolls under water and Keaton, McGuire and the actor playing the person controlling the sub all have to remain upright in a rolling vessel. To shoot this scene Keaton had his cameramen, Elgin Lessley and Byron Houck, bolt the camera to a revolving set; as the room turned it and the camera remained in the same relative position but the actors’ orientation changed, so they appeared to defy gravity. It’s an effect that’s been used several times since, notably in Fred Astaire’s dance-around-the-room in Royal Wedding (1951) and so the flight attendant on the moonship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) could appear upside-down to the ship’s passenger — but it was startling to see The Navigator and realize that the mechanically-minded Keaton (who loved to build in real life the sorts of elaborate contraptions Rube Goldberg only dreamed up on his drawing board — he does so in this film in a scene in which he’s rigged up a series of pull ropes so he and McGuire can operate the kitchen equipment) was there first.