The Old Ship Inn, Hammersmith, London
27 October 2016
Silent film screenings can take a lot of different forms. You can get a gala night at the Royal Festival Hall with a full symphony orchestra and an audience of 1500, or an evening at the Kennington Bioscope with an eminent guest speaker and 150 highly knowledgeable patrons. Or you can get an evening in a small room above a pub with a modest audience many of whom have never seen a silent film before. And it was in just such a pub venue that we found ourselves tonight. We were at the Old Ship Inn on the banks of the River Thames in Hammersmith for first silent film screening organised by our host and MC for the evening, Tom Hopkins. It was a bit of a leap of faith by Tom who says he hasn’t done anything like this before but he did have a couple of useful weapons in his armoury. The first was his choice of main feature. Buster Keaton’s The Navigator is a terrific film and a great introduction to silent comedy. The second was his choice of accompanist, in the form of Jonathan Best, an excellent pianist and the driving force behind this year’s highly successful Yorkshire Silent Film Festival.
But first up was a short and it was only when the film started rolling that I realised I had never before seen The Goat (Dir. Malcolm St Claire/Buster Keaton, 1921). Here, Buster plays a down on his luck hobo who is already having troubles with the police after a ‘lucky’ horseshoe throw goes badly wrong. But his plight gets worse when he is mistaken for the murderous criminal Dead Shot Dan and there is a heavyweight detective (Joe Roberts) on his heels. When the detective’s daughter unwittingly invites him home to dinner the game looks to be up. It’s just incredible how much is packed into this 25 minute film and there are some great sight gags, particularly Buster queuing at the breadline unaware he is standing behind two dress shop mannequins or him sitting on a slowly sagging clay model of a horse while the entire lift scene is just frenetic brilliance. Keaton showpieces his athletic skills, particularly when escaping from the detective’s home, but his comedic genius relies as much on his superlative gift for facial and physical gestures (frequently belying his ‘Stone Face’ nickname), for example his growing impatience in the bread queue or his look when cornered at the detective’s dinner table. All this made for a great start to the evening and, after we’d sampled a glass or two of the Old Ship Inn’s wares it was back for the main feature.
In The Navigator (Dir. Donald Crisp/Buster Keaton, 1924) Buster plays rich, bored, and indolent socialite Rollo Treadway “living proof that every family tree must have its sap”. Waking one morning he decides to get married but his girlfriend turns him down. Unperturbed he decides to go on honeymoon anyway but ends up by mistake stranded on a drifting, deserted ocean liner. Eventually he discovers his girlfriend is the only other person on board. Initially their problems stem from a lack of servants and the inability to look after them-selves but over time they become more resourceful with Rollo even donning a diving suit to fix the propeller. When cannibals kidnap his girlfriend Rollo comes to the rescue but when all seems lost salvation comes from the most unexpected quarter.
Less well known than other Keaton classics such as The General (1926) or Steamboat Bill Jr (1928), The Navigator is, none the less, a superb comedy, well constructed, beautifully executed and consistently funny. It was well received on its initial release by critics and the public alike reportedly becoming Keaton’s most financially successful picture. The idea for the film apparently came when Keaton’s technical director, Fred Gabourie, came across a steamship The Nanking, which was due to be sold at auction after its owners had gone bankrupt when the authorities found smuggled opium, cocaine, and morphine onboard their ships. An embryonic storyline was drawn up but before filming could commence the Nanking had been sold. Not to be outdone, Keaton chartered the liner SS Bulford (or Buford) for $25,000 and with cast, crew and equipment loaded they set sail for the island of Catalina off the California coast where most of the shooting took place. Keaton became obsessed with filming the underwater scenes, initially off Catalina (where the water proved too cloudy), then at an onshore pool (which collapsed under the weight of water) and finally at Lake Tahoe (where the ice-cold water meant that Keaton and the crew had to be frequently revived…with liberal doses of bourbon according to one source.). Despite all his labours, the underwater scenes were eventually cut down to barely a couple of minutes of screen time.
Kathryn McGuire (left), playing Buster’s girlfriend, certainly earned her money in The Navigator. If she wasn’t being endlessly drenched in the sea she was being soaked on deck by the ‘rain’, hauled unceremoniously on and off a recalcitrant deckchair or arduously dragging Keaton out of the water in his diving suit. However, she and Keaton make a good partnership and she must have known what to expect, having previously starred with him in Sherlock Jr, (1924) thus becoming Keaton’s only leading lady to work in more than one of his feature length films. Although she continued acting until the late 1920s McGuire’s career never again reached such exalted heights.
Keaton’s big stunt in The Navigator is an impressive dive from the deck of the ship into the waters below to save his girlfriend, a distance of at least 50 feet. But as with The Goat most of the best laughs come from Keaton’s response to particular situations, for example the look he gives at the prospect of having to haul his unconscious girlfriend the ship’s ladder to get back on deck, his worried expression at the prospect of having to don a diving suit or his reaction on tasting coffee made with seawater. And his deadpan humour is to the fore in the way he nonchalantly produces a new hat each time his existing one is blown off by the wind or how he idly buffs his nails on the spinning treadmill. And the great gag of the indolent Treadway’s use of his chauffer driven limo to cross the road to his girlfriend’s house is almost immediately eclipsed by his decision to take a ‘long walk’ back home to clear his head. All in all an excellent comedy and, along with The General, apparently one of Keaton’s two favourite films
Meanwhile Jonathan Best on the keyboard did a great job accompanying both films, helping to build the tension where necessary and contributing to the frenetic pace of the plots. Tom’s efforts in setting up this evening’s event are much appreciated, particularly if they succeed in bringing in new converts to the joys of silent cinema. He is already hoping to put on a further evening of silent entertainment. Good luck to him.