Friday, January 1, 2016

Film Review: Battling Butler



"Battling Butler"  *** (out of ****)

It's a knockout for Buster Keaton in the silent comedy "Battling Butler" (1926).

If you were to ask most fans of silent comedy what they thought of "Battling Butler" the majority would say it is, at best, a second-rate Buster Keaton comedy. It lacks the inspiration and inventiveness of Keaton's "The General" (1926) or "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). This would also be what Buster Keaton fans would say about the movie. At one time I would have strongly disagreed with these type of comments. I used to praise "Battling Butler" and refer to it as Buster Keaton's funniest picture and my all-time favorite however after viewing it again I now, rather surprisingly, agree with the majority - somewhat. "Battling Butler" lacks the inspiration of Keaton comedies like "The General", "Battling Butler" is almost sit-com material although I do recommend seeing it. It does have some good comedy sequences.

What is most interesting watching Buster Keaton in "Battling Butler" is how Mr. Keaton won't completely succumb to the cliches of the romantic-comedy. Mr. Keaton has a lot of confidence in this comedic material and narrative. He sees no reason to engage in sentimental or semi-romantic scenes. With another filmmaker at the helm "Battling Butler" would have a bit more heart. It would have a larger role for the female character and a touch of romance.

However there are aspects of "Battling Butler" which don't feel Keaton-esque. It may be because the movie was based on a stage play of the same title. Mr. Keaton tries but can't thoroughly make this material his own. The Great Stone Face character is out of place in this story. Perhaps Joe E. Brown or Harold Lloyd would have been better suited for this story.

On the other hand one can see why Mr. Keaton would want to film this story. Mr. Keaton was very athletic and did perform his own stunts. Mr. Keaton's comedies relied heavily on physical comedy and slapstick. Mr. Keaton does a lot of running, jumping and falling in his movies. "Battling Butler" deals with boxing which gives Mr. Keaton plenty of opportunities to engage in physical comedy and display his athleticism.

Also lurking around "Battling Butler" is a story of masculinity. It is interesting to note just how many comedies often deal with this theme. The male character (the comedian) must prove himself as masculine in order to impress the female character he is attracted to. So the character must enter in the big race or fight the jock or score the winning touchdown in the football game, anything to prove he can "rough it" and use force instead of brains. This implies females like the "he-man" type and are impressed by strength.

In "Battling Butler" Mr. Keaton plays Alfred Butler. The movie begins with Alfred, who comes from a family of great wealth, sitting in the living room of the mansion his family owns, while his mother is babying him along with the butler and Alfred's valet. The valet (Snitz Edward, who was born in Hungary) is even removing a cigarette from Alfred's mouth and placing back inside once Alfred's exhales. This immediately established Alfred is privileged and dependent upon others. He can't even smoke a cigarette on his own. Meanwhile his father walks in and notices this spectacle. He looks on disapprovingly and suggest Alfred should go on a camping trip to help him "man up", do some hunting and fishing.

Without any protest Alfred agrees and has his valet arrange everything. On this camping trip the valet has set-up Alfred's tent, which is large enough to have a bed inside, prepare his meal, a small stove was brought along, and lays out Alfred's clothes for him.

While attempting to hunt Alfred meets a pretty girl, credited as "The Mountain Girl" (Sally O' Neil). She comes from a poor family and despite the difference in their social rank, Alfred claims he is in love. The Girl shows interest in Alfred as well even though the Girl's father (Walter James) and brother (Bud Fine) do not approve because they feel Alfred is a "weakling". In other words, Alfred is not manly enough.

What can Alfred do in order to gain the father's approval? Wanting to help matters the valet comes up with a plan. In the newspaper an article is written about an important light heavyweight boxing match going to take place. The challenger is called Alfred "Battling" Butler (Francis McDonald). The valet believes if the father and brother think Alfred is a boxer surely that would prove he is a man, a tough, rugged man. Alfred and the valet hope Alfred "Battling" Butler will lose the match against the champion, which will put an end to the matter, and Alfred can marry the girl.

Because this is a comedy, events aren't as simply as that. The unexpected happens and Alfred "Battling" Butler wins the championship. In order to keep the lie going Alfred and his valet must travel to the town where each fight is taking place while trying to prevent the Girl from coming along.

Events soon escalate and Alfred now finds himself in a situation where he must fight in the place of Alfred "Battling" Butler against the number one contender, the Alabama Murderer. Of course Alfred doesn't know how to fight. He is not in shape. And naturally the Girl is in attendance for the big fight.

There are three moments in "Battling Butler" which perfectly capture the appeal of the Great Stone Face character. Alfred wants to propose to The Mountain Girl. There is a love advice column in the newspaper about the very topic of how to propose to a woman. The article goes over the proper questions for the man to ask and the replies he may receive. Alfred cuts out the article and hides it in a place where he will be able to read it during his proposal. Alfred asks the Girl if she could love him. Alfred is not expecting a direct response, per the article, the Girl replies she does love Alfred. Alfred very calmly rips the article to shreds, takes the Girl in his arms and kisses her. No double take, no exaggerated gestures, just very calm, steady, deliberate actions. That was the Keaton character. He was never phased. He never allowed his emotions to show.

Next there is a moment when Alfred and the Girl are about to be married. Alfred has given the ring to his valet, but has forgot. The priest ask for the ring. Alfred checks his pocket. The valet immediately shows up and hands Alfred the ring. Imagine how another comedian would have handled this situation. The comic looks for the ring, can't find it, begins to panic. The bride begins to panic, the guest begin to panic. The priest looks on disappointed. Finally someone hands him the ring.

Some may not find humor in this and ask what is the appeal. As I understand it, the appeal is, life constantly throws us curve balls but The Great Stone Face doesn't allow himself to become upset. He is always thinking and reacting to every situation. That is the humor. How quickly he responds to the problem thrown his way and he does it all with a dead pan expression.

Finally there is a moment when Alfred learns, from the Girl's father, about an upcoming fight. Alfred doesn't blink an eye and ask his valet to arrange for their travel. Alfred is even calm when the Girl says she is going with him. Alfred immediately comes up with an excuse for why he doesn't want to see him fight.

"Battling Butler" was the highest grossing movie of Buster Keaton's career. His acclaimed masterpiece, "The General" was a flop. Both were released in the same year. It goes to show you the difference in commercial appeal and critical appeal. Critics (sheep) were not kind to "Battling Butler" but audiences went to see it. Today critics still don't like it and rather spend all of their time praising "The General".

"Battling Butler" is a decent comedy. It is worth watching and should not be ignored by movie fans. There are some good comedy sequences, and hints of what made The Great Stone Face character so appealing as well as a society commentary on masculinity and how women inspire men to "prove" themselves. Still, I cannot deny "Battling Butler" lacks some of the big laughs and inventiveness of other Buster Keaton comedies. But, for a comedy approximately 90 years old, one has to admit "Battling Butler" holds up pretty well. It is not a quintessential Keaton comedy but a worthwhile effort.