Buster Keaton is a legend whose films are more known about than seen by many modern fans. But even among film lovers who are not averse to watching silent movies, Keaton’s seventh feature, Battling Butler, is not much discussed. An odd fact considering it was the Great Stone Face’s favorite of all his movies.
Many may know Keaton because he is one of the great legendary silent comedians whose name is often dropped after someone says Charlie Chaplin. But as time has worn on, we have begun to raise Keaton close to Chaplin’s pedestal. If only because, much like Chaplin, there is a humanity in his storytelling that reaches across the ages.
The Battling Butler isn’t as visually astounding as Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. nor is it a sprawling epic like his masterpiece The General. But it is a visually deft and sweet romantic comedy.
Alfred Butler (Keaton) is the son of a wealthy family, but whose inability to fend for himself makes him an embarrassment. So he and his valet, played by Snitz Edwards, go into the mountains to take in the fresh air, hunt, and in general, try and make a man out of him. Instead, he meets a lovely woman played by Sally O’Neil. Her father, much like Alfred’s, doesn’t like what he sees and tells him that he’s no good.
The Valet, proving to be one of the great wingmen of cinema, notices a fighter named Alfred Butler (Francis McDonald). To help Keaton, he tells the woman’s father and an older brother that Alfred is actually the “Battling Butler.” This sets off a series of events in which Keaton must leave because the real Alfred is either training or has a scheduled flight, and so to keep up the ruse, he must go as well. That way, the return address on Keaton’s love letters to O’Neil will match those of the Battling Butler.
You’ll notice that O’Neil’s and Edwards’s characters do not have names. No one outside of Keaton and McDonald does. The scripts of silent films were more concerned with stories than with character names, mainly because they came at dialogue much differently. Written by Al Boasberg, Lex Neal, Charles Smith, and Paul Gerard Smith, Battling Butler is a lean but hardly mean cinematic affair.
With silent film, there’s a sort of leap of faith the audience is required to make. This is in contrast to most modern era films, where everyone demands that the movies be as realistic as possible. Yet unlike some of Keaton’s other works, which are filled with what he called “impossible gags,” Battling Butler, being a feature, is much more grounded.
Look at the gag where Keaton’s Alfred and O’Neil are having lunch together. They are sitting at a table while the valet cooks the meal. The ground is wet and soggy, and as they lean on the table to get closer to one another, the table sinks into the ground, forcing them closer and closer together. Finally, the Valet comes over with the food to find them lying on the ground gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes.
Keaton directed and edited his movies, and it’s impossible not to watch something like The Battling Butler and be in awe of how he will cut a scene together both to tell a story, sell a gag, or do both so seamlessly you don’t even realize it. One scene is Keaton and his Valet walking through the forest looking for something to hunt.
All around them are animals scurrying about in the open field. They walk and walk until finally Keaton sees something, pulls up his gun, and fires—but his gun is facing backward. The buckshot instead hit’s O’Neil’s handkerchief. She chews out Keaton and his valet, and of course, Buster is smitten.
It’s interesting that, at times, Battling Butler can still surprise. Such as when O’Neil sits down next to the boxing Alfred’s wife, Mary O’Brien, the night after Buster’s Alfred has crawled out of her room. Nothing scandalous; he was merely helping her change a lightbulb—no really. O’Brien has a black eye, showing us a critical difference between the bumbling Alfred and the boxer Alfred.
At first, it seems Battling Buster is content with merely hinting at implying Alfred is an abusive jerk. But when the Valet confesses to the “real” Alfred what is happening, he decides to let him keep up the charade, even to the point of fighting in his next match against a boxer named The Alabama Murder. Battling Butler has gone from merely implying to outright stating that McDonald’s Alfred is a Grade-A heel.
We see Buster train for the fight. Gags ranging from Keaton and Edwards trying to get out of running to having his gloves tied to the boxing ring ropes abound. As the match grows nearer, Keaton somehow shows even less progress than when he first started.
The entire movie, it seems, has been building up to show us Buster Keaton in the ring, and when the time finally comes, the fight instead takes place in his dressing room between Buster and McDonald’s Alfred. It’s revealed they were only training Keaton as a gag to get back at him. But McDonald stills wants his revenge for what he sees as Buster “flirting” with his girl.
All of this leads to one of my favorite closing scenes in recent memory. Buster Keaton in his top hat and cane, still dressed in his boxing shorts and nothing else, walking through the streets of New York City at night arm and arm with O’Neil. It’s one of the most visually satisfying endings I’ve seen in a long while. That it comes from a silent film made in 1926 only makes it better.
Keaton used Edwards in three of his other films, and for a good reason. Edwards’s Valet almost steals the show and would have succeeded if he were not trying to steal from Keaton. He has a homely face that projects a sense of professionalism while also hinting at an impish glee just underneath the surface. With Keaton’s haunted face, there has rarely been a sadder, more sentimental, comedic duo.
Keaton’s cameramen Bert Haines and Devereaux Jennings help keep Battling Butler visually alive. There’s a shot where the camera is facing Keaton and Edwards as they sit in a car. The window in the back of the car acts like a lens as we slowly see O’Neil come into focus through the back of the vehicle. Haines, Jennings, and Keaton are constantly finding new ways to frame old scenes.
During training, Keaton looks through the arms of his trainer Tom Wilson. Wilson’s arms frame the scene from Buster’s POV. Through Wilson’s arms, he sees O’Neil seemingly flirting with McDonald. But then they also show us the same shot, so we see Keaton’s great big beautiful mug framed by Wilson’s arm. Silent film is a constant reminder that modern film is doing precious little with the freedom and technology we have acquired.
Battling Butler may not be as inventive and surreal as some of Keaton’s more well-known films, but his artistry is as ever on full display. The economy of shots and the clean execution of sight gags that turn into plot points right before your very eyes is a reminder of what the term movie magic means. It’s all so exhilarating and compelling that the fact that this isn’t his most regarded effort somehow only makes it all the more impressive.
Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
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