Coming up next: Buster Keaton's great comedy 'The Navigator' (1924), the final entry in our seafaring silent series at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre.
Showtime is Sunday, Aug. 25 at 4:30 p.m. I'm looking forward to this one, first because it's a terrific film. But also, it's a film that, despite its reputation as one of the great comedies of the silent era, doesn't seem to draw big laughs. And that to me is a challenge.
A Keaton film without yuks? Strange, because most Keaton films produces gales of laughter. But not 'The Navigator. When I've done it, audiences seem to take it in quietly and respectfully. Despite one excellent comic scene after another, the audience reaction is muted at best.
Is this because the two characters on the ship are in too much peril for anyone to laugh?
Consider: Originally, 'The Navigator' included an extended series of underwater gags near the picture's climax, but Keaton cut this footage to the bone after preview audiences failed to laugh, which stopped the movie's momentum.
Keaton's theory was that the situation on deck was just too serious to get away with circus clowning far below, so there was no choice but to "uninclude it," as Sam Goldwyn might have put it.
And perhaps tastes have shifted enough since 'The Navigator' was first released so that now the whole movie is colored by this dynamic. Maybe we're just too worried about the couple adrift on the ocean liner that it keeps the comedy from really breaking through into belly laugh territory.
Well, on the other hand, Harold Lloyd routinely put his characters in considerable danger, and got laughs all the while. So I wonder. Maybe 'The Navigator' is one of those "smile on the inside" comedies. Maybe we just don't spend enough time on ocean liners any more to find the setting very funny. Maybe our attitudes toward the "idle rich" have changed.
In terms of the music, I'll do my best to keep the underscoring quiet for most of 'The Navigator,' allowing audience members to hear each other reacting, which is all part of the experience. Loud music, or too much of it, gets in the way of that happening.
Well, don't take my word for it. See for yourself what kind of reaction 'The Navigator' gets by joining us in Wilton on Sunday, Aug. 25. Press release text with complete info pasted in below.
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 14, 2013 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Classic silent comedy ‘The Navigator’ (1924)
in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Aug. 25
Buster Keaton's nautical masterpiece to be screened with live music at Town Hall Theatre
WILTON, N.H.—He never smiled on camera, earning him the nickname of "the Great Stone Face." But Buster Keaton's comedies rocked Hollywood's silent era with laughter throughout the 1920s. Acclaimed for their originality and clever visual gags, and also admired for their authentic location shots and amazing stunts, Keaton's films remain popular crowd-pleasers today.
See for yourself with a screening of 'The Navigator' (1924), one of Keaton's landmark features, at the historic Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 4:30 p.m. The program, which concludes a summer season of silent films set at sea, will be accompanied by live music performed by Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with suggestion donation of $5.
'The Navigator' follows the adventures of wealthy nitwit Rollo Treadway (Keaton) and his pampered girlfriend, who find themselves adrift alone on a massive ocean liner. Forced to fend for themselves without servants, the pair attempt to cope with day-to-day life, creating classic comedy in the process.
But when the ship runs aground on a remote island inhabited by cannibals, is Buster's resourcefulness enough to save the day?
Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film musician who has accompanied shows at venues across New England, said Keaton's films were not made to be shown on television or viewed at home.
In reviving 'The Navigator,' the Town Hall Theatre aims to celebrate its roots as a silent moviehouse by showing silent film as it was meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.
"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Rapsis, who will improvise the score on the spot as the film screens. "Recreate those conditions, and classics of early Hollywood such as 'The Navigator' leap back to life in ways that audiences still find hugely entertaining."
Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.
Keaton, along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, stands today as one of the silent screen's three great clowns. Some critics regard Keaton as the best of all; Roger Ebert wrote in 2002 that "in an extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929, (Keaton) worked without interruption on a series of films that make him, arguably, the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies."
As a performer, Keaton was uniquely suited to the demands of silent comedy. Born in 1895, he made his stage debut as a toddler, joining his family's knockabout vaudeville act and learning to take falls and do acrobatic stunts at an early age.
A remarkable pantomime artist, Keaton naturally used his whole body to communicate emotions from sadness to surprise. And in an era with no post-production special effects, Keaton's acrobatic talents enabled him to perform all his own stunts, including some spectacular examples in 'The Navigator.'
'The Navigator' (1924) will be shown with live musical accompaniment on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St. in Wilton, N.H. The show is free and open to the public, with a suggestion donation of $5 to help defray expenses. It's the final installment in the Town Hall Theatre's summer-long series of sea-faring silent films. For more information, visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com; for more information on the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.
Critic comments on 'The Navigator':
"The Navigator looks and feels like it could be one of today's summer mega-blockbusters. It has a great, simple premise that includes the destroying of a huge set. It's endlessly imaginative, funny, inventive, etc. It's one of the greatest movies I have ever seen."
—Jeffrey Anderson, Combustible Celluloid, 2001
"His comic timing is brilliant. He says more in his face than most actors today do with their face and voices. It's a very funny story with dozens of very memorable comic scenes. A true classic."
—James Higgins, Turner Classic Movies, 2011