The Sunday Intertitle: The Deep

Only sort of an intertitle — sort of a sur-title too. It’s kind of like an illustrated intertitle too. As the song issues from the phonograph, the lyrics are superimposed over the speaker…

The movie is THE NAVIGATOR, a Buster Keaton triumph enjoyed by my students last week. I was inspired to write about Keaton’s uncanny side by this sequence in which Buster and Kathryn McGuire (better-used than in SHERLOCK JNR) are terrorized by nocturnal sounds on a deserted ocean liner. And my recently-acquired 1933 Film-Lovers’ Annual offers a useful way in —

“I was a youngster travelling with my parents’ act when a ventriloquist joined the show. Now, of course, the first thing a youngster learns in the show business is to leave other peoples’ ‘props’ alone. But the dozen talking dummies the man used fascinated me.

“After the matinée, I used to sneak back into the theatre and get up on the dark stage where the dummies hung in a row under a piece of canvas. I would pull the canvas back and watch them in awe. The ventriloquist noticed it–and stayed in and hid with the dummies one afternoon. I came in, and pulled back the canvas.

“‘Well, what do you want?’ boomed the biggest dummy. I think I cleared the orchestra pit and reached the front entrance in nothing flat! And I’ve never monkeyed with a ventriloquist’s ‘props’ since.”

This could well be a publicist’s invention, like so much else in the book, but it does chime nicely with a little-remarked section of STEAMBOAT BILL JNR’s famed hurricane sequence, where a concussed Buster is terrorized by a seemingly animate marionette, like something out of DEAD OF NIGHT. Since so much of Buster’s comedy is predicated upon the hostility of the universe, which “monkeys with its props” in order to give the unfortunate humans a hard time, it’s apt that this tendency sometimes takes on a downright supernatural appearance. In THE NAVIGATOR, the effect of Donald Crisp’s malign portrait swinging past Buster’s porthole, alarming him in his bunk, captures a universal childhood fear to perfection (fear of sea captains? No, I mean it captures the universal childhood sensation of fear), and thus gets audiences hysterical. That particularly virulent form of laughter that’s tinged with terror…

Dummies. They ARE creepy. A friend was so traumatized by the moment at DEAD OF NIGHT’s climax where the dummy walks, he literally ran from the room in panic. Years later, he invited a friend to watch the film, giving it a big build up. When the moment came, he sensitively warned his friend that it was approaching… the dummy stood… and he ran from the room in panic again.

7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Deep”

  1. I love the Cavalcanti episode, but it took me ages to realize that the climax of the film was directed by Basil Dearden, in one of his rare fits of the operatic/expressionistic. Good to see he’s starting to get some attention again.

  2. All good movies… more than the sum of their “issues”. Can’t wait to hear what America thinks of The League of Gentlemen. Roger Livesey in a heist movie! Might also lead to more interest in writer/star Bryan Forbes.

  3. Christopher Says:

    arrrrrr!..its ol’ Donald Crisp a lookin’ in! =:oO
    Glad your students enjoyed The Navigator!..It sometimes knocks Our Hospitality out of top spot as my favorite Keaton…Keaton and Kathryn McGuire work like a dream team..

  4. It’s strange that KM makes so little impression in Sherlock Jnr, but in The Navigator she’s a perfect match for Buster.

  5. Props figure in so largly in Keaton, as well as being large props; the locomotive in The General, or the ship in The Navigator.

    That scene in the Navigator where Keaton is looking for the woman, is more choreographed than directed, as with alot in Keaton.

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