Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Battling Butler (1926)

Battling Butler (1926)
Directed by: Buster Keaton.
Written by: Paul Girard Smith & Al Boasberg & Charles Henry Smith and Lex Neal.
Starring: Buster Keaton (Alfred Butler), Snitz Edwards (His Valet), Sally O'Neil (The Mountain Girl), Walter James (Her Father), Budd Fine (Her Brother), Francis McDonald (Alfred Battling Butler), Mary O'Brien (His Wife), Tom Wilson (His Trainer), Eddie Borden (His Manager).

With Battling Butler, Keaton made one of his most popular features at the time he was a star in the 1920s – but his least interesting feature when his career is looked back upon some 90 years later. The film is essentially Keaton on cruise control as he once again plays a wealthy idiot who must prove his manhood – much like he did in The Navigator (1924). Here, his parents are sick of him lazing about the house doing nothing, so they order him to go off into the woods to camp, hunt and fish and become a real man. “Arrange it” he orders his valet, who dutifully obliges. Once in the wilderness however, Keaton’s Alfred Butler doesn’t really become a man himself, but rather falls in love with a Mountain Girl (Sally O’Neil). Her family, much like his, doesn’t think he’s manly enough – so he perpetrates a ruse where he pretends to be the famous Alfred “Battling” Butler – a famous prizefighter. He even strikes a deal with his same-named to keep up the ruse for a while – but it all falls apart of course, leading to a surprisingly brutal fight between the two to climax the movie.

The fight that ends the movie is the highlight of the movie, and really the only reason to see it. As always, Keaton was a master of physical comedy and stunt work, and the battle that ends the film is well choreographed, violent, stunning and funny all at the same time. It’s not the best work he’s ever done, but it’s still fine.

The rest of the movie however really is quite dull. Keaton had played a millionaire before – as I mentioned in The Navigator as well as The Saphead (1920) – a film he had no part in writing or directing (which is why I didn’t review it for this series). He had also played a man out of his element in the wild before in his short – The Balloonatic (one of his weakest). And obviously, he has played a man who has to prove himself worthy in pretty much all of his films. That was Keaton’s stock character – a determined, but often hapless, young man who gets one thing after another thrown at him, but he keeps his head down, his face stone, and barges on through. It is an effective character for Keaton that worked wonders throughout his career. However, given that it is a similar character almost every time out, when the results are somewhat less inspired – as was the case with Battling Butler – it starts to feel stale – as if Keaton is simply coasting on his immense charm.

Part of the problem could well be the film’s stage roots. Keaton also adapted Seven Chances from a stage play – and not coincidentally, the parts of both movies that work best are the parts that most likely were not part of the stage plays he adapted – the chase sequence that takes up the last third of Seven Chances, and the fistfight that ends Battling Butler. He’s on much shakier ground in the plot heavy parts of both films – but because the plot of Seven Chances was so simple, it allowed him to mainly string together inspired visual gags. In Battling Butler, with its complicated comedic plot of misunderstandings, misdirection and misidentification, Keaton has to have far too many scenes where people are explaining everything to each other – which in a silent movie can be deadly.

Battling Butler certainly has its charms - nothing Keaton did was ever wholly worthless, and this film is no exception. But it is a film that I can fairly confidently say would have long since been forgotten had it not been directed by a genius. It was however, so now it stands as probably the weakest feature film of that genius’s career.

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