Battling Butler

US (1926) Dir. Buster Keaton

The things a guy will do to impress a girl. The great thing about cinema is the field is wide open to explore this to the enth degree and beyond, and better still, the innocence of simpler times make it even more fun.

Privileged Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton) spends his life in luxury and being waited on by the family staff to the point even his parents think he is a pampered milksop. To toughen him up, Albert is sent on a fishing trip to the mountains to learn how to take care of himself, which he reluctantly agrees to – except he takes his loyal valet (Snitz Edwards) with him so the pampering continues.

During the trip Alfred meets and falls in love with a girl (Sally O’Neil) and proposes to her, but her father (Walter James) and brother (Budd Fine) don’t want a weakling in the family. Having discovered a newspaper article about a boxer named Alfred “Battling” Butler (Francis McDonald), the valet pretends this Butler is his master and the marriage is allowed. Unfortunately, Battling Butler is about to challenge for a title, meaning Alfred has to keep the pretence up, even if it means taking the fight himself.

Amazingly, Battling Butler is based on a stage musical so if you ever wondered if there was a sing-a-long version of Rocky, now you know. Written by Walter L. Rosemont and Ballard MacDonald, the stage version featured a slightly different plot, where the main character, whose name is spelt “Buttler” is the victim of the identity hoax and not the perpetrator.

In the musical, Buttler is already married and uses the boxing excuse to party with his friends in the city, until his wife found out, having already met the real boxer named Buttler. Keaton’s version boasts a fresh take on the story via a makeover by four MGM screenwriters, working in tandem with Buster’s unique blend of physical comedy and pathos driven characterisations.

For a Keaton character to actual start out in a position of wealth is a rarity as his forte is usually the average Joe embroiled in an uphill battle to claim the prize, be it the love of a woman, a moral victory, or something of great material value. Yet, his slight stature and stoical expression lends itself to that of an entitled scion so the leap of faith required by the audience is that great to make in seeing Keaton in this role.  

Of course, he mines every last drop of comic potential from this scenario, opening with the wonderful sight gag of Alfred’s almost palatial tent from out of which Alfred steps, dressed in his smartest hunting gear, faithful valet in tow. This hunt is not a success in terms of shooting animals but Alfred did almost shoot the girl, who angrily returns fire with stones and rocks.

Equally doomed is Alfred’s fishing trip which sees the girl save him from drowning and their love begin to blossom. Alfred rewards the girl with dinner, but not rice and beans over a campfire but a three-course meal served on the best crockery and eaten with the finest cutlery. Another great sight gag features the weight of the table sinking into the soggy earth as the meal progresses which the lovebirds are too smitten to notice.

You’d think passing yourself off as a champion boxer when you look nothing like the one in question would be sheer folly, but Alfred and his valet strike lucky with the lumbering giants Alfred has just inherited through marriage. Only in the movies, folks. So far, this is as outlandish as the humour gets, relying on subtle visual comedy which may make the pacing seem atypically tepid for a Keaton film.

Luckily, things go into overdrive for when Alfred is forced to hide out at the real Battling Butler’s training camp to maintain his ruse as his wife back in the mountains vowed to write to him every day. Unfortunately, she chose to go one further and follow Alfred to the camp, so now he has to train for real, but even then, he and his valet have plans to cut the odd corner or two.

Meanwhile, they end up staying at the same small hotel as Battler and his wife (Mary O’Brien), incorporating one of the farcical elements of the original musical but with a necessary twist to suit the narrative here, over the coincidence of there being two Mrs. Butlers. One ending up with a black eye in a gag that wouldn’t work today, is evidence the confusion is over the names only, at least while Battler is clueless about Alfred’s charade.

Eaton’s physical comedy is legendary as are the large-scale dangerous stunts he often performs that incur the odd serious injury. The danger is mostly eliminated here but this doesn’t apply to the physicality of the training sequence, surely one of the more cleverly constructed examples of Keaton’s acrobatic skills without needing to pull out all the stops. Many involve Alfred getting caught up in the ring ropes whilst arguably the most smoothly executed spot is when Alfred tries to leap over the top rope but somehow ends up outside the ring again!

A moral ending may not seem the direction this tale is heading in but that is what we get after 70-plus minutes of pugilism, deception and slapstick comedy, seemingly coming out of nowhere but deceptively cogent all the same. Decide your own meaning behind it, but I saw it as don’t judge people by their surroundings and always be honest with those closest to you.      

Battling Butler shows us a different side to Keaton which many weren’t expecting and is generally overshadowed by his more famous works. Despite this, it offers plenty of fun and hints at Keaton’s diversity by incorporating satire in with his trademark brand of daredevil comedy. You could say it was the calm before the storm of his next film, The General