Battling Butler (1926)

Prediction For The Fight? Pain!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

It’s a curious contradiction that it takes a man as athletic as Buster Keaton to convincingly play a man so unathletic and clumsy in the prizefighting romp Battling Butler. Keaton, whose training came from vaudeville and later slapstick comedy shorts, had a knack for playing pampered, effete young millionaires. If anything, Keaton never looked more dapper than he does in Battling Butler, in particular during the first half of the picture in which he exhibits an array of exquisitely groomed, 1920’s gentlemen’s attire for hunting and fishing. This was from a time when boxing was a gentleman’s sport before becoming the realm of the working-class underdog.

Of all Keaton’s silent features, Battling Butler is held in the least regard and is arguably the least viewed in contemporary times. Even back in the day was unable to get my hands on the film until I finally found a copy on a lesser-known video-sharing site. I agree Battling Butler is one of Keaton’s weaker works; however, lesser Keaton is still great Keaton in my book. That said, the film does have a slightly more anodyne feel to it. The premise is quite contrived and upon watching the film again after many years, I did get frustrated at times with its contrivance although I was able to become more accepting of it on further viewings. The basic gist: Albert Butler (Keaton) assumes the identity of a prizefighter who shares his same name (Francis MacDonald), in order to prove to his mountain girl (Sally O’Neil) and her family that is a real man (I will refer to MacDonald’s character as the “Other Butler” for the rest of the review to avoid confusion). One contrivance for example which is never addressed is how the crowd at the train station mistakes the Butler for the Other Butler. One could assume this was a ploy organized by Albert and his valet since the crowd makes their way to a house where Albert and his mountain girl are wed, but the movie never makes this clear. The plot of Battling Butler falls into the category of those which could not happen in a world of the internet, mass media, bureaucracy and surveillance. For example, the mountain girl and her family can only follow his supposed fight over the radio. With television only a few decades later, the whole premise falls flat.

That said, if you suspend your disbelief, Battling Butler still delivers the usual Keaton goods, such as the comic use of mise-en-scene with the placement of props during the camping trip from the film’s first act, including a polar bear rug and a bedroom panel inside Albert’s tent – you know, the usual camping essentials. Furthermore, the skit of Albert trying to shoot a submerging duck only a few feet away while standing up in a tiny kayak is reminiscent of an Elmer Fudd scenario in a Looney Tunes short, with the obviously fake duck prop making the moment even more comical. I also appreciate the use of The Funeral March of The Marionette (aka the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents) in the film’s contemporary score by Robert Israel, when Albert is shown an ambulance and stretcher before the picture’s climactic fight. However, once Keaton dawns the boxing gloves, the best of the film’s comedy shines through. Buster Keaton training to become a prizefighter is a natural haven of comic possibilities as the weakling Albert knows jack about hand-to-hand combat and exhibits basic failures of hand-to-eye coordination. The recurring pratfall of Albert getting tangled and trapped in the boxing ring ropes like a ragdoll is one of the film’s physical comedy highlights and like the greatest Keaton stunts it has you asking “how does he manage to do that?” (one thing I do wish is that the movie had shown more of was that ridiculous-looking punch bag, mannequin with the flailing arms). However, when Keaton actually appears in boxing shorts, his surprisingly muscular physique is apparent, rather than the skin and bones we would expect from a character like Alfred Butler – I guess Keaton wasn’t prepared to go all Christian Bale in The Machinist for the role. As for the Other Butler, any sympathy that is created for the character from having both another man profit from impersonating him and having an unfaithful wife (who tries to have an affair with Alfred Butler), becomes undone through some unseen domestic violence in which his wife is shown to have received a black eye in by far the film’s darkest joke.

The boxing arena featured in Battling Butler is the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles (which still stands today as a place of worship for the Glory Church of Jesus Christ). The cinematography employed for the scenes inside the auditorium are particularly impressive with the use of deep focus and a single heavenly spotlight from above (alongside the golden glow of the film’s sepia tone tinting). The Olympic Auditorium has its own extensive history with motion pictures, being used as a shooting location for both Rocky and Raging Bull. Speaking of the later film, Battling Butler and its final fight does have one huge admirer, none other than Martin Scorsese himself. Scorsese points to the fight as one of the biggest inspirations to getting the “feel” of the boxing scenes in Raging Bull just right according to the book Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, with Scorsese quoting that Keaton is “the only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies“. The fight in question is not the fight the film tricks the audience into thinking it is building momentum towards, in which Albert must face off against the intimidating figure of The Alabama Murderer, of which it initially feels disappointing that we are never actually treated to. Rather the climatic fight is a backroom brawl between the two Butlers. It is uncharacteristic for Keaton to triumph using brute force rather than through ingenuity but this break from Keaton tradition does work in a number of ways. For starters, the fight itself does look authentic and the punches look real while the footage does not appear to have been sped up (you can see why Scorsese would have been attracted to it). Secondly, it is a huge turning point in Alfred’s character, when he has been pushed beyond his limits to his breaking point after the Other Bulter taunts him (think of how George McFly knocks out Biff Tannen in Back To The Future after George has been pushed to his breaking point). In a convincing show of strength, Alfred knocks out the Other Butler, and thus Alfred’s journey is now complete. He is now a man and worthy of his woman.

Seven Chances (1925)

For Love Nor Money

Much of the beauty of Buster Keaton’s films comes from their simplicity. Jimmie Shannon (Keaton) learns he will inherit 7 million dollars (105 million in 2019) providing he is married by the evening of his 27th birthday. Jimmie is not yet married and it just so turns out, his 27th birthday is today (the only question I would pose about the premise is how they define “by the evening” as being 7 o’clock but I digress). Seven Chances is split into two distinct sections, the preamble and then the action-orientated second half. The picture is only 56 minutes long and the pacing is just about perfect in this Metro-Goldwyn Production (just before the Mayer was thrown in). Seven Chances is one of three Keaton features which sees him play a rich nitwit, similar to the characters he would play in The Navigator and Battling Butler. With the film’s theme of Money vs. Love, the picture goes to the effort of getting the audience’s sympathy and making the protagonist less of a heal. The endearing opening prologue establishes that Jimmie loves his girlfriend Mary (Ruth Dwyer) but is too tongue-tied and shy to confess his feelings towards her. After Jimmie bungles a proposal to Mary with a tactless remark, he refuses to marry anyone else and has to be persuaded by his business partner to marry another woman. At one point, he even refuses to marry his gal because he wants to spare her from what he believes is the failure and disgrace that awaits him. Likewise, the film also establishes that Jimmie’s brokerage firm is in trouble after being tricked into a shady deal and thus himself and his partner face ruin and possibly prison, justifying his need for the money. If the main character’s motivation was that of pure greed then the film simply wouldn’t work.

The first half of Seven Chances involves Keaton making many socially awkward marriage proposals, first with a failed attempt to Mary and then to a series of women at a country club (his seven chances). Possibly due to its origins as a stage play, Seven Chances has a higher ratio of jokes which have a greater degree of input from other cast members or don’t involve Keaton at all, with T. Roy Barnes and Snitz Edwards receiving many comic highlights. However, the film’s best, unsung cast member would have to be the Anna May Wong lookalike of the hat check girl who displays great underplayed comic timing with Keaton (according to the article Married In Haste by Imogen Sara Smith, the uncredited actress is named Rosalind Byrne). Seven Chances also includes an early screen appearance from future screwball dame Jean Arthur as the secretary Miss Smith (or so her name tag suggests as she later shows Jimmie her wedding ring). It may be a silent film but she still conveys that wisecracking attitude and laidback persona with her body language and that expressive face (often seen reading a book while she is on the job).

As Jimmie becomes increasingly desperate to find a bride he runs up towards a woman only to see that she is black. Now keep in mind that miscegenation was illegal in California until 1948. Is Jimmie showing repulsion over her race or disappointment that he legally cannot marry her? The gag could be interpreted as a jab at such laws however at least one black woman does come to the church later on to marry him. Subsequently, Jimmie approaches another woman only to stop pursuing her upon discovering she is Jewish after she holds up a newspaper in Yiddish. Many reviewers mistake the newspaper to be printed in Hebrew which was not a widely spoken language among Jews at the time whereas Yiddish was (several newspapers in this language did exist in the US at the time and I’m curious as to what the text on the paper translates to). It’s not clear if the girl even speaks English as when Jimmie speaks to her she looks confused and just shrugs her shoulders. Does Jimmie avoid marrying her due to language barriers, the issues derived from marrying a Jewish woman or just anti-Semitism on his part (to derive some humour from shock value)? Likewise, another woman Jimmie encounters gives him a quick rejection to which he informs his partners immediately afterwards, “Wrong party” – make of that what you will. The only joke in the film in which context is required for a modern viewer is that in which Jimmie walks into a theatre featuring what appears to be a female performer, only for him to walk out seconds later in a ruffled-up state upon discovering the performer in question is Julian Eltinge, a cross-dressing performer of the time. I will say it is the weakest gag in the film as it’s not particularly clever.

The two-strip Technicolor footage from the film’s opening prologue hasn’t survived well and has a very washed-out look however the remainder of the film from the 4K restoration comes in a lovely sepia-tone print. As far as Keaton’s technical wizardry, the automobile transitions are a unique experiment as Jimmie hops into a car and the shot fades to a different location with the car and Keaton remaining in the same screen position. What’s particularly impressive about these transitions are the spokes on the wheels which remain in the exact same position in both shots – blink and you miss it attention to detail. Seven Chances also includes many shots of Keaton’s early pioneering of deep focus cinematography such as the interior shots of the church with a sleeping Jimmie on the front bench as scores of perspective brides make their way in via the background and all in clear focus. Speaking off…

The second half of Seven Chances is comprised of the set-up and execution of a colossal chase sequence. After failing to find a bride, Jimmie and co print an advertisement in the evening newspaper informing whatever lucky woman shows up at the Broad Street Church at 5 pm will become the bride-to-be for the forthcoming millionaire. Come 5 pm and the church has been beset with hundreds of prospective brides to which the church’s clergyman appears and announces he believes the whole thing to be a practical joke. Infuriated, the brides chase after Jimmie who subsequently discovers Mary wants to marry him after all.  This chase involves the most extras employed in a Keaton film, outdoing his 1922 shorts Cops which acts as a precursor to Seven Chances. The women in their makeshift bridal outfits destroy everything in their path like a stampeding herd of elephants in their pursuit of Jimmie. Keaton shot many of his films using locales in Los Angeles and Seven Chances is another great example of how he was able to use the city as his playground. From the trolleys, automobiles, open fields and orchards; it’s a wonderful showcase of vintage west-coast Americana. The sequence keeps upping the ante with every new obstacle from football players, beehives and duck hunters with much of the carnage reminiscent of what Peter Bogdanovich would execute in his screwball comedy homage What’s Up Doc?. The manner in which Keaton moves his legs as he’s running as fast as he can is like a character in a Hanna-Barbara animation and his stunt work really makes you say “is he really doing that?”. At one point he even runs into a barbed wire fence which he subsequently tries to untangle himself from – it looks painful. The film does feature some same shot edits on several of the stunts but it doesn’t ruin one’s state of disbelief. The chase culminates in one of the most surreal of Keaton moments as he gets Indiana Jones’d by hoards of falling boulders. In reality, the rocks were made out of papier-mâché however I do find the physics of the boulders believable, you can feel the weight of them as they roll and bounce around. It appears that Keaton does engage in The Prometheus School Of Running Away From Things as at several moments he could have just run to the left or right to avoid the boulders, but the scene is so entertaining I can suspend my disbelief. Buster Keaton was truly beyond us mere mortals.