(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Considering that it’s basically a parody of macho, Moby Dick-type sea epics, The Love Nest is rather startling in its inventiveness. Its gags range from ultra-macho to feint-quaint, from physically elaborate to drawing-board basic. And as Keaton takes the sole writing-directing credit here, one is tempted to look at the movie as stream-of-Keaton’s-consciousness.
Here, Buster is suffering from yet another unrequited love. (Considering the amount of time that Buster spends [at least in his short subjects] pining for a woman he doesn’t need and is probably better off without, perhaps he deserves the slightly ditzy females he gets in the feature films.)
Buster writes a “Dear Jane” letter (to a woman who probably won’t be bothered to read it) and drifts away on a sailboat that is eventually taken up at sea by a huge whaling boat named The Love Nest – a rather feminine name for a ship with such a masculine purpose. (More baggage from Keaton’s subconscious, perhaps?) The captain (Joe Roberts), naturally, is a ruthless brute who throws crew members overboard for minor infractions, thoughtfully throwing in a sympathy wreath (of which he keeps a handy supply) as an afterthought. We can deduce that it’s only a matter of time before Buster’s well-meaning ineptitude will cause him to be pushing up water daisies as well.
Keaton’s body language has always seemed a bit delicate, but The Love Nest might be the one movie where he comes off as downright effeminate. His first scene includes a method for sealing his “Dear Jane” letter that wouldn’t be out of place in a romance novel: He brings a finger to each of his eyes, extracts their tears, and use them as moisture to seal the letter’s envelope. Later, when the captain calls for “All hands on deck,” Buster drops to his knees, places his hands on the ship’s deck, and remains in that position until the captain calls him to task for it. And the movie’s funniest non-physical gag comes when the captain has fallen overboard and Buster takes it upon himself to man the ship; in a nod to the sailors’ financial security, Buster tells the crew that he will not only raise their pay, he’ll also get them an insurance policy. (What, no 401k??)
The movie’s finale shows Buster adrift at sea, becoming the inadvertent victim of a Navy gunner ship’s target practice. A viewer who commented on this film at The Internet Movie Database has tried to claim all sorts of subconscious subtext for this motif; more likely, it was Buster and his crew desperate for an ending.
Possibly the most bothersome image in The Love Nest has nothing to do with the quality of its gags. At one point when Keaton means to show us that Buster has been adrift for several days, he shows Buster with greasepoint slopped all over the bottom part of his face. It might be a matter of picky aesthetics, but to me it is a bothersome encumbrance for that expressive face. As Walter Kerr wrote in his invaluable book The Silent Clowns, “A faint touch of soot and the face turns storybook-stylized, a depersonalized thing of paint. Interesting as Keaton looks under these circumstances, we are always relieved when the smudge is wiped away…We want the man back; he will still be called a clown but he will now be a clown of substance.” Even when the substance is as insubstantial as The Love Nest, that beautiful face gives it weight.