The legendary Man of a Thousand Faces added another memorable portrait to his growing gallery of grotesques in 1924, playing He Who Gets Slapped. Though the movie was directed by Swedish master Victor Seastrom, its premise was just as twisted and bizarre as anything to be found in the Lon Chaney-Tod Browning collaborations. Here Chaney is a brilliant scientist who turns circus clown to avenge himself on the man who stole credit for his invention. The story may have been absurd, but the actor himself was exceptional, smiling through his tears as the Pagliacci-like title character, ably supported by up-and-comers Norma Shearer and John Gilbert. This vehicle, the first release of the newly amalgamated MGM, proved so popular in fact that four years later Chaney would practically reprise his part in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. If the Academy had slighted Chaney’s tremendous turn as Quasimodo in the previous year’s blockbuster The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is what I think would have happened, a solid, middlebrow hit like He afforded the perfect opportunity for them to make amends. In addition, I don’t think Oscar would’ve had any reservations about honoring Hollywood’s hardest working character actor here, since the movie was adapted from a respectable Russian stage source, with the typical Chaney horror elements toned down, and the sad clown theme offering him material that was the closest he’d yet come to classic opera onscreen- added incentive for any prestige-conscious Academy. The actor’s superb in the movie, but today He Who Gets Slapped, from that unwieldy title on down, lends itself far too easily to parody (it’s a tribute to Chaney’s artistry that we buy into it at all). With his hopeless, unrequited love for Shearer’s beautiful young equestrienne, the part, at times, seems better suited to one of the great silent era clowns. Chaplin pretty much played it for laughs in The Circus. With a relatively choppy sea of potential nominees, Buster Keaton should’ve had smooth sailing for The Navigator, cruising to golden glory with all the momentum of a steamer. While a few actors gave impressive performances in searing dramas, including Emil Jannings in F.W. Murnau’s expressionist milestone The Last Laugh (impressive enough to have warranted a rare Oscar nomination for a foreign actor), the winds blew Buster in the other direction entirely, leaving him free to crest above the competition by cornering the comedy market.
In my personal favorite of all Keaton’s comedies, he plays Rollo Treadway, scion of a wealthy family who decides, on the spur, to propose to The Girl next door (the underrated Kathryn Mcguire, Buster’s best leading lady). To nurse his broken heart after she rebuffs him, he resolves to go on their honeymoon cruise alone but by mistake boards The Navigator, a decommissioned ocean liner earmarked for destruction. The Girl, who had accompanied her father to the dock, also finds herself stranded aboard as saboteurs set the boat adrift. Mystified in the morning to find they’re the only passengers on board, the two try cooking breakfast for themselves, but prove they don’t know the first thing about preparing meals. Their attempt to hail a passing cruiser proves equally inept when they unwittingly run up a yellow flag signaling quarantine. Unnerved by the vastness of the lonely liner, this previously incompatible couple find solace in each other’s presence. Weeks later, the pair reveal how well they’ve adapted to their new surroundings by breezing through the morning routine. When the ship runs aground off a cannibal inhabited island, Rollo dons a diving suit to repair the hull, as The Girl mans his air pump. She’s abducted while he’s submerged however, and Rollo must combat the hostile natives and all manner of sea-life to come to her rescue. “The living proof that every family tree has its sap,” Rollo is so pampered, so accustomed to having his every need tended to by the help that he can’t even bathe (walking into the sunken tub he begins to scrub down before his state of dress dawns on him), cross the street (the chauffeur must drive this spoiled infant next door), make a bed (the top bunk collapses on his lower berth), or feed himself (he can’t boil an egg or open a can of corned beef). Like Dudley Moore’s equally dependent, immature Arthur many decades later, the crutch of wealth has induced a state of arrested development, leaving this full grown man as helpless as a newborn baby. He has quite a bit of growing up to do before he will make any girl a suitable mate. This aspiring husband must learn to do for himself if he ever expects to care for a wife and child.
Keaton’s quizzical, perplexed persona never seemed more suited to a character than it does to this sweet natured simp. All at sea long before he’s ever cut adrift, his innate curiosity soon begins to assert itself once aboard The Navigator, his tinker’s brain whirring into overdrive seeking to fathom the workings of this immense, modern means of conveyance. No character with Keaton’s enquiring mind could long remain ingenuous in such a stimulating environ, and gradually he begins to thrive independent of both his fortune and those amenities of modern living, such as electricity, indoor plumbing, and running water, he’d likewise taken for granted all his life. Incapable before of coming to The Girl’s defense when foreign spies beset her at the dockyard, Rollo now staves off an entire cannibal tribe. Screendom’s great stoneface remains stoic throughout, but his laboriously constructed routines incessantly succeed in breaking us up. Several gags, brought off like clockwork, hinge on Keaton’s split-second comic timing. Racing around the ship, in a deft piece of choreography, searching for The Girl, who he can hear but not see, they repeatedly miss spotting each other. One will turn a corner just as the other comes round the bend. Spooked at night, as a line of doors behind him swing open, each time he whirls around in search of the strange sound, the listing boat has rocked them closed again. Standing unsteadily on the arm of a sofa, he topples back into a chair we’ve been set up to believe The Girl is sitting in, only to have her unexpectedly pop out from behind it. Yet some of Keaton’s best moments in this frenetic slapstick comedy are the calmer ones: His Rollo trying to entertain the sleepy Girl by shuffling a deck of soggy playing cards, the surreal, eerie image of a diving helmeted Keaton emerging from the rolling surf like some ancient astronaut, then further freaking out the locals by shaking a mean shimmy, the victorious duo wading back into the water, Buster falling flat to form a rubbery human raft with Mcguire (in a shockingly suggestive visual) climbing astride to ride him back to the ship.
Buster’s specialty however, remains the humor derived from his interactions not with people, but with gadgets. Anticipating a similar sequence with a real cannon in The General, a toy canon gets tethered to his foot, tailing him despite his desperate attempts to escape its sights. The actor puts ordinary objects to incredibly creative use. Repairing the hull, for instance, he enlists a handy lobster to serve as a pair of pliers, and then commandeers a nosy swordfish to fend off its combative companion in an undersea duel straight out of Jules Verne. Early on, when his Rollo tried preparing the first meal he ever had for himself, the resulting mess was a hilarious fiasco. By movie’s end however, in an echo of the earlier scene, he’s rigged up an ingenious assortment of automated, timesaving contraptions, recalling those Keaton had contrived for his short The Electric House, out of commonplace household objects, which allow him to breeze through the morning routine. It’s the movie’s most arresting sequence because it allows the comedian to display the dazzling degree of self-sufficiency his character has attained in just a few short weeks. Keaton gives a breathless joyride of a performance as his rudderless Richie Rich becomes shipshape before our eyes, going from a callow incompetent who drifts aimlessly through life, like those hats that keep blowing off his head, wherever the winds of chance may take him, to a capable man of self determination. The captain of his own ship as much as the master of his own destiny, now at movie’s end he can unceremoniously squash that symbolic top hat beneath him in a cheeky display of slapstick irreverence. What the movie is really about is how Rollo learns to chart his own course through life’s troubled waters rather than coasting along on the path predetermined by his inherited millions, how he learns to become his own Navigator.
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