While Buster Keaton was winding up production on his second feature film, Our Hospitality, in the summer of 1923, his technical director, Fred Gabourie, was loaned out to First National Pictures to look for suitable sailing ships for the studio’s upcoming production The Sea Hawk (1924). During his search, Gabourie came across a steamship that seemed perfect for Keaton as a prop for a new film. The China Mail Steamship Company had gone bankrupt after authorities found smuggled opium, cocaine, and morphine onboard their ships, and the Nanking, their flagship, was to be sold at auction. When Gabourie reported his find, Keaton and his writers quickly saw the potential.
But first, Our Hospitality needed to be finished, and The Misfit, soon to be renamed Sherlock Jr., was next in the pipeline, scheduled to begin shooting just after New Year’s Day. By the time Sherlock Jr. was ready for release in April 1924, the situation had changed. The Nanking had been sold to the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, overhauled, and was back in service as a passenger ship. It was no longer available to Keaton and company. The idea for the film was still too good to pass up, so they chartered the 370-foot liner SS Buford for three months at a cost of $25,000 from the Alaskan Siberian Navigation Company.
The Buford arrived in San Francisco on April 17 from a 60-day round-trip voyage to Tahiti with 200 passengers and a cargo of 500 tons of sugar, which had been loaded in Honolulu on the return leg. The captain of the ship, John O’Brien, a 58-year veteran of the sea, oversaw the ship for the duration of filming. Following arrangements, the Buford steamed out of San Francisco on April 28 headed for San Pedro, where film equipment, props, and personnel were loaded onboard for a trip to Catalina Island. An announcement in the Los Angeles Times on May 11 boasted: “In addition to a crew of 110 men the ‘Buford’ has room for 500 actors and artisans in the first-class section of the ship, 300 in the second-class and 150 in the steerage.” In fact, only two people, Keaton and actress Kathryn McGuire were to occupy this enormous ship, at least on-screen. Behind the scenes, the support crew onboard totaled 60 people, half of them the production crew, the rest running the steamer.
Kathryn McGuire had recently costarred with Keaton in Sherlock Jr. and became his only leading lady to work more than once on any of his features. At only 20 years old, she had already appeared in films for five years, starting in short subjects with Mack Sennett before moving onto features. Most of her later feature work was in westerns until her retirement from film in 1930.
Keaton spent most of May filming at Catalina, anchored near Two Harbors, with two other films in production nearby. Cecil B. DeMille was directing Feet of Clay (1924) for Paramount at the St. Catherine Hotel in Avalon, and Jack Conway was directing The Roughneck (1924) for Fox Film. The island, popular not only for film production but also as a leisure location, was visited one weekend by comedy film producer Hal Roach and western star Tom Mix, who just happened to sail in on their own boats.
While in Catalina, Keaton and company attempted to film the underwater scenes in the harbor, but the water was too cloudy from silt kicked up by Keaton as he moved on the ocean bottom. They tried an alternative location in the ultra-pure waters of the Elliotta Plunge swimming pool in Riverside, California, but it proved too small to hold the 12-foot mock-up of the ship’s keel, so the film company extended the nine-foot walls up to 20 feet. When they filled the pool, the bottom blew out and the water percolated away. While the pool was being rebuilt, Keaton moved the company to Lake Tahoe, near Meek’s Bay, to try again. Despite July’s summer heat, the glacial water was ice-cold, and Keaton could only stay down in the water for a limited time before having to be hauled up and thawed out. The cameramen fared no better; their body heat fogged up the glass windows of the diving box and ice had to be packed in to keep the windows clear. Added to that, the water pressure caused leaks at least five times. It took most of the month to film what was eventually edited down to just a few minutes of screen time.
Keaton had hired Donald Crisp to direct the dramatic scenes in The Navigator. Although Crisp is more recognized as an actor, starting with D.W. Griffith in 1909 and ending with the title role in 1963’s Spencer’s Mountain, Crisp directed more than 70 films in his long career. However, Keaton and Crisp clashed over the course of filming. Keaton wasn’t happy with the Crisp-directed dramatic scenes, which are particularly evident at the beginning of the film when the spies set out to destroy the ship. Crisp was more interested in helping with the comedy bits but objected to the underwater scenes, which he felt were unnecessary. By the end, Crisp was simply sitting on the sidelines, watching the progress of the film. Finally, Keaton announced to Crisp that the film was finished, but, after Crisp left, Keaton resumed filming at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios water tank.
Keaton became obsessed with the underwater work and was especially proud of an underwater scene with a school of fish made out of rubber and attached to an elaborate metal frame that gave a very realistic effect. In the sequence, he pins a starfish to his suit, stops the school of fish like a traffic cop, and lets a lone fish cross their path before allowing the group to continue on. In a 1925 Ladies Home Journal article, Keaton claimed the stunt cost $10,000 to produce but noted that after several preview audiences watched the fish-crossing scene in stone-cold silence, he had to remove it from the film. The scene survives today because Keaton used it in the trailer promoting the film.
The Navigator premiered at the Capitol Theater in New York on October 13, 1924, and was an immediate hit, critically and financially. Several reviews called The Navigator Keaton’s best picture yet, and it broke the single day’s receipts record at the Capitol, the Warfield in San Francisco, and the State in Los Angeles. It was his biggest moneymaker until Battling Butler topped it in 1926. In later years, Keaton counted The Navigator and The General as his favorite films. He had an obvious affection for all his silent film work, which he reminisced about in dozens of interviews to the end of his life. Taking a look at any of those films today, whatever film he might have picked as a favorite, it was hard to go wrong.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by the Matti Bye Ensemble