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.