Battling Butler (1926)
Release Date: September 19th, 1926 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Buster Keaton Actors: Buster Keaton, Sally O’Neil, Francis McDonald, Snitz Edwards
dapted by Paul Gerard Smith, Al Boasberg, Charles H. Smith, and Lex Neal, from a play of the same name, and directed/produced/starring Buster Keaton, “Battling Butler” is considered by many to be the least Keaton-esque film of his career. But despite occasional gags that may seem uncommon, the direction and plot are masterfully coordinated to create a memorable and enchanting film of exceptional artistic quality. Black and white and silent, the slapstick is perfect, the laughs plentiful, and the conclusion magnificently mirrors the beauty of Chaplin’s “City Lights.”
Alfred (Buster Keaton) is an indoor-loving, pampered, jellyfish weakling, who lives off his father’s riches and is constantly served by his faithful valet (Snitz Edwards). Alfred’s father is ultimately responsible for his son’s inability to care for himself, but he nevertheless encourages the helpless young fop to go camping to learn a few practical skills. But Alfred’s version of “roughing it” still involves the ceaseless attention of his butler and the use of expensive conveniences to get by.
As Alfred ineptly tries to hunt, bunnies playfully hop around him, quail casually fly past, and fish gaily leap from the stream. During his outing, he encounters a beautiful mountain girl (Sally O’Neil), who he accidentally shoots at and with whom he immediately falls in love. He walks her home (though he gets lost, forcing her to guide him back to camp) and meets her brother (Bud Fine) and father (Walter James), who see that he is barely able to fend for himself. The following morning, Alfred sends his servant to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage – which the father promptly refuses to give. Intent on pleasing his boss, the valet lies about Alfred’s abilities, claiming that he is the legendary Alfred “Battling” Butler, the current prize fighting champion.
As Alfred gets caught up in the whopper, the real Battling Butler (Francis McDonald) continues to win fights (against such boxers as the Alabama Murderer). Alfred indeed marries the mountain girl, but prevents her from watching his fights, so that he can maintain the ruse. Sure enough, his path eventually crosses with the genuine pugilist and, as part of a revenge scheme, Alfred is trained to fight in place of the reigning champ.
The prevarications get so complex and involving that they’re the perfect setup for both slapstick and hilarious situational comedy. Fearful of losing his true love by telling the truth, Alfred’s only option is to stick to the falsities, which continually become harder to control, especially when his wife surprises him with a visit during practice, leading to plenty of scenes of awkward hilarity. It’s the classic mistaken identity ploy mixed with the notion of going to extremes to win the girl – taken a step further and generously served with helpings of absurdity and switcheroos.
Title cards serve as the narrator, as the film is silent, but Keaton, not wanting to miss a chance for laughs, goes as far as to include jokes in those bits of written guidance. And the gags never cease, highlighted by physical stunts that find the acrobatic Keaton fighting for his life in a lengthy sparring sequence, or simply changing a light bulb for Butler’s wife (played by Mary O’Brien). Dangerousness regularly accompanies Keaton’s antics, including car exploits that further demonstrate his ability to choreograph absorbing selections of varying forms of humor. Although it’s now more obscure than “The General” or “Sherlock Jr.,” “Battling Butler” made the most money of any of Keaton’s silent pictures. And though it may not be as familiar or traditional as some of his other projects, especially considering it was adapted from a stage success and not Keaton’s own material, it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable of his works.
– Mike Massie