Battling Butler (1926)
Director: Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Sally O’Neil, Walter James
Synopsis: A love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.
Unusually for a Buster Keaton (Convict 13, Seven Chances) movie, Battling Butler is based on a stage play, which clearly left him with little scope for the kind of spectacular stunts with which Keaton is so often associated. He doesn’t leap from tall buildings, or have the front of a house fall on top of him, and while he still manages to wring a decent number of laughs from the story it never really feels like vintage Keaton.
He plays Alfred Butler, the spoiled son of a wealthy family whose soft lifestyle — he even has a manservant to flick the ash from his cigarette for him — infuriates his father. In order to toughen up his son, Dad insists he spend some time in the country. No doubt he had in mind a rigorous expedition in the wilderness, but Alfred has other ideas and retreats to the country with a huge tent filled with all the comforts of home and the attentions of his loyal valet (Snitz Edwards — The Phantom of the Opera, Seven Chances). As you’d expect, Alfred is a hopeless hunter, unable to spot the potential prey all around him, and is even outwitted by a duck who keeps dipping its head beneath the water just as Alfred’s about to shoot. However, while he’s out and about posing no threat whatsoever to the local wildlife he runs into a Mountain Girl (Sally O’Neil — The Battle of the Sexes) who takes his fancy and quickly decides that he’s going to marry her (‘Arrange it’ he instructs his valet).
However, the girl’s strapping father and brother don’t want their gene pool diluted by weaklings like Alfred, and refuse to allow him to woo their girl until Alfred’s valet hits on the idea of passing him off as a boxer (Francis McDonald — Monte Cristo, The Iron Mask) who shares the same name as Alfred. When they learn that Alfred’s a fighting man, the country folks are more than happy to welcome him into the fold. But a series of complications result in an increasingly guilt-ridden Alfred having to prolong the subterfuge and travel to Battling Butler’s training camp, where the boxer is preparing to fight the Alabama Murderer.
Although Keaton is a wealthy man, he’s still the underdog here, where a man’s worth is measured by the size of his biceps rather than the size of his bank balance. Keaton wasn’t a puny man, he was fit and athletic and there was clearly muscle definition in his arms. But his character is supposed to be this puny, cosseted rich boy, so Keaton surrounded himself with giants. In one scene, we see Butler’s manager (Eddie Borden — Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome) with his back to the screen, and then he moves away to reveal Alfred, who was completely hidden by the other man’s bulk. It was an effective ploy that worked wonderfully well, and Keaton completed the illusion by giving Alfred the gracelessness of a novice in the ring. He flails his arms and stumbles over his feet, and can’t even negotiate the ropes around the ring without nearly suffocating himself.
The film’s earlier scenes, in which Alfred displays his complete ineptitude in adapting to life in the country are the best, especially his attempts to incorporate urban luxuries into his temporary rural abode. He even has a paperboy deliver his morning paper. For the second act, the action moves to Battling Butler’s training camp and the humour becomes more physical. Keaton wisely kept the running time down to a trim 77 minutes which means things don’t drag during the set-up for the finale. We expect that to be a mismatched bout in the ring with the Alabama Murderer (the way Chaplin later would in City Lights, and Stan Laurel in a couple of Laurel & Hardy movies), but Keaton fools us. Battling Butler does end with a knockdown fight, though, and it’s an unexpectedly brutal and strangely unsettling one, largely because Keaton is so convincing in the fight’s early stages as he receives repeated blows to the face while unsuccessfully trying to keep his opponent at arm’s length.
Battling Butler is looked upon as one of Keaton’s lesser vehicles these days, although it was actually one of his most successful at the box office. True, it isn’t as memorable as, say, The General, which was released the same year (and bombed), and it has no real physical spectacle or precision stunts, but it still manages to deliver a decent number of laughs.
(Reviewed 19th January 2014)