Cast & Crew
Indolent and wealthy Alfred Butler, accompanied by Martin, his valet, goes on a camping excursion in his Rolls-Royce with all the accouterments of luxury. He meets Sally and gets up enough ambition to propose marriage, but her husky father and brother persuade him to withdraw his suit. When Martin tells Sally's family that Alfred is actually "Battling Butler," a championship boxer, Alfred is welcomed as a prospective suitor and later is proclaimed a hero for purportedly winning a fight. Then the real Butler appears with his spouse; he decides to humiliate the imposter by having him fight one "Alabama Murderer" and has him trained by his managers. Alfred locks up his bride to keep her from seeing his disgrace but finds that the real "Battling Butler" has already won the fight. Then the boxer begins to fight with Alfred, who finally summons his courage and beats the champion.
Battling Butler (1926) - Battling Butler
Clearly, this playboy is overdue for a comeuppance. It arrives in the form of the mountain girl, who makes Alfred's acquaintance when his gun accidentally goes off and nearly mows her down. Before long they're in love, but her father and brother - extremely big, extremely brawny men - are far from enthusiastic about having him in the family. Determined to get some respect for his beloved boss, the valet spots a newspaper story about another Alfred Butler - not a scrawny zillionaire but a prizefighter known as Battling Butler, who's in contention for the lightweight championship. Convinced by the valet that Alfred the playboy and Alfred the boxer are the same, the mountain girl's kinfolks change their tune and treat the playboy very well. There's only one catch: He has to go to Battling Butler's training camp and look like he actually belongs there. Battling Butler finds out about the imposter's plan, and instead of objecting, he tells Alfred Butler that he can have the pleasure of fighting the Alabama Murderer in an upcoming bout. The future looks anything but bright. I won't reveal how Alfred Butler survives, but rest assured, he does.
Battling Butler is based on an almost-eponymous British musical called Battling Buttler, a Charlie Ruggles vehicle that had done well on Broadway a few seasons earlier; the play didn't put the boxing match onstage, but Keaton felt moviegoers would expect it. Sure enough, while the buildup is charming and funny, the picture hits high gear when the playboy finally puts on the gloves. To prepare for the scene, Keaton rented a gym and brought in his friend Mickey Walker, a world welterweight champion, to help him plan his moves. Some of the roughest challenges for Keaton involved Alfred's attempt to get into the ring without tripping over, running into, or being strangled by the ropes, and Keaton had to suspend shooting for days after a particularly bad fall on his head. He also suffered some strained ligaments that further delayed things. Happily, his efforts paid off at the box office, bringing in even more than The Navigator (1924) had earned two years earlier. Some of its success can be chalked up to the gritty, surprisingly violent prizefighting footage - as always in his pictures, Keaton did all of the stunts and rough stuff himself - but the final scene also deserves credit, with Alfred the toned-down playboy strolling along a city street with his loving mountain girl, attired in boxing shorts, top hat, and cane.
As director of Battling Butler, Keaton shows again how well he understood the old maxim that tragedy is close-up, comedy is long shot. Indeed, he extended its meaning from good advice about camera positioning to a whole philosophy of comic acting. Like other silent-film comedians, he knew the importance of placing the camera at a distance so it keeps the comic's highly trained body entirely in view. He also knew to keep the camera rolling for relatively long takes, displaying his comic skills and physical dexterity without chopping them into flurries of separate shots. Beyond this, though, he kept a cool psychological distance between the character he was playing and the audience looking on. This is part of the reason for the famously dead pan that was his best-known trademark. Watch his face and it's hard to tell what he's thinking and feeling, which means it's safe to laugh at the outlandish things that happen to him. But just when it seems he'll never reveal his inner self, the twitch of an eye or a crinkle in his mouth, or the way his torso shifts direction or tilts at a different angle, makes him richly human in a flash, and you realize how much you've cared about him all along. Keaton's ability to pull this off so brilliantly, as both actor and director, is what makes him a greater silent comic than anyone except Charles Chaplin, and even Chaplin often lags behind him for sheer laughs. Few films better illustrate these qualities than Battling Butler.
In the supporting cast, Sally O'Neil stands out as the mountain girl, sprightly and good-humored throughout. Francis McDonald is convincingly tough as Battling Butler, and Mary O'Brien makes a delightful impression in the small role of his flirty wife. Walter James and Bud Fine tower over everyone in sight as the mountain girl's large father and brother, and best of all is Snitz Edwards, who plays the valet with a face almost as stony as Keaton's, if not as lovable. Variety praised Keaton's acting and directing for getting "an abundance of laughs out of pure gag stuff." The stuffy New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall started his review by calling the picture a "typical Buster Keaton farce with numerous novel wheezes," but warmed to it as he went along, eventually deciding that Keaton "lives up to his name as an excellent screen fun-maker."
Keaton had made better films - think of Sherlock Jr. in 1924 and Seven Chances in 1925 - and he'd make other comedy classics in the near future, starting with The General and continuing with College (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). But there's much to enjoy in Battling Butler, a fine example of Keaton in his physical and directorial prime, playing the same persona he embodies in The Navigator, College, and Steamboat Bill, Jr., as film scholar Gabriella Oldham points out: a young man who "starts out as a spoiled or inept and sheltered boy and grows through severe tests into a strong, sensitive adult." In the end, Oldham concludes, "whoever or whatever traps and assaults Buster is ultimately no match, for he will emerge miraculously preserved and victorious." So will movie fans who view Battling Butler today.
Director: Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Paul Gerard Smith, Al Boasberg, Charles H. Smith, and Lex Neal; adapted from the play by Stanley Brightman and Austin Melford
Cinematographers: J.D. Jennings and Bert Haines
With: Sally O'Neil (The mountain girl), Walter James (Her father), Bud Fine (Her brother), Francis McDonald (Alfred Batting Butler), Mary O'Brien (His wife), Tom Wilson (His trainer), Eddie Borden (His manager), Buster Keaton (Alfred Butler), Snitz Edwards (His valet)
by David Sterritt