What! No Beer?
As might be expected in a production featuring silent film great Keaton and Durante, What! No Beer? (1933) is comprised of copious pratfalls and physical comedy as the pair of enterprising moonshiners encounter overzealous cops intent on shutting them down, gangsters trying to seize control of their profitable business and myriad disasters, from lousy beer to rivers of foam.
In hindsight, Keaton may not have been the best choice for a film centered so exclusively on booze, since he spent much of his professional career battling the bottle. He began working on What! No Beer? immediately after divorcing his wife Natalie Talmadge and admitted in his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, "I was trying to drink away my sorrow and woe every night." After an embarrassing incident in which Keaton passed out from a combination of exhaustion and beer and cost the entire production a day's work, MGM was worried enough about Keaton's boozing that when the picture wrapped, the actor was sent to Arrowhead Springs to dry out. It was at one of those drying out clinics where Keaton performed one of his own slapstick stunts, escaping his fourth story room by sliding down a drain pipe in the dark.
What! No Beer? was Keaton's third match with Durante after The Passionate Plumber (1932) and Speak Easily (1932), two highly successful pairings of the comedy team. Exhibitors wanted more product and MGM rewarded them with What!, a film Keaton called, "100 per cent turkey." But despite Keaton's and critics' disparagement of the film What! No Beer? did phenomenally good business even in the midst of the Depression.
A seasoned, well-established film veteran, Keaton was not pleased to be playing second-bill next to Durante. Like Keaton, who began in the business as a child, Durante was a veteran of the vaudeville and nightclub stage. And though Keaton objected to sharing the bill with Durante and found his onscreen acting style loud and crass, off the set the pair nevertheless became good friends.
Keaton's lack of enthusiasm for the production can be felt at every turn, as biographers Joanna E. Rapf and Gary L. Green have noted: "In many of the scenes Buster gives the impression of being under the effect of sedatives. He seems shrunken, hollow-eyed and considerably older."
Keaton claimed to finish a bottle of booze a day during the six week shooting schedule. During the production, Keaton disappeared and wound up honeymooning in Mexico City with a nurse named Mae Scriven whom he had married during an alcoholic blackout. In the meantime, the What! No Beer? team shot around Buster Keaton.
The Durante-Keaton team was growing into a highly profitable venture, and MGM already had another film cooking in the wings, called Buddies, which was slated to star child actor Jackie Cooper. But Keaton's alcoholism was simply too much to handle and not soon after, Keaton was fired by the studio, signaling the downward slide of his career.
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Screenplay: Jack Cluett, Carey Wilson, Robert E. Hopkins (story)
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Buster Keaton (Elmer J. Butts), Henry Armetta (Tony), Roscoe Ates (Schultz), Phyllis Barry (Hortense), Edward Brophy (Spike Moran), Charles Dunbar (Mulligan).
by Felicia Feaster