For the past three years, Eureka has been doing mighty good work dipping into Buster Keaton’s filmography, from one of the best short film collections I have ever experienced to his most famous trio of features of the General, Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr. Eureka has provided me with some of my fondest discoveries of the past few years. Even with a filmography as rich and dense as Keaton’s, you have to reach the lesser-known titles eventually and with Eureka’s second three films set (also features The Navigator), for me, at least, we have reached that point where the quality starts the inevitable downward curve and that film is 1926’s Battling Butler.
Keaton plays meek millionaire Alfred Butler and in the opening scene, he says to his family that he is bored of living in the lap of luxury and sets out for the nearby countryside to live a simpler life – with his Butler (Snitz Edwards). Once there he fails at shooting, fishing, everything he tries his hand at – during which he meets Sally O’Neil’s Mountain Girl, despite her introducing herself by shouting at the pair, Keaton wants to make his wife. There is a chemistry, as seen in a scene where the two stare longing into each other’s eyes as the table Keaton has prepared slowly sinks into the mud. Anything more than that and the Mountain Girl rebuffs his advances. Turns out, Keaton’s character happens to share a name with a champion boxer – Alfred “Battling” Butler, it matters little what era it is, this is a comedy so there’s only one place this is going to end up. That’s right, to impress his would-be wife, her brother and dad, Keaton says he is that very same boxer.
If you’ve never seen a Buster Keaton movie, the one thing you should take away is a brand of slapstick comedy that would go on to inspire Jackie Chan. Keaton is a ragdoll with amazing balance for his comedy and even if certain parts don’t stand up as comedic now, it is impossible to not be impressed by his physical feats. In the Battling Butler, it takes a long time to get to those stunts with most if not all of it coming when Keaton is taken under the wing of the Boxer’s trainer (Tom Wilson). Before that, time is spent on setting up the moving parts. Keaton doesn’t want O’Neil to see him training or go to his matches as he becomes a “wild animal”, so, this plays more towards Keaton as a character than Keaton as a vehicle for stunt work. His Butler also gets a few moments to shine, moments which Snitz Edwards takes great advantage with him doing a lot of the same things as Keaton throughout the obligatory sports training sequence. At the end of the day, though, this was based on a musical from 1923 hence it doesn’t subscribe to the same DNA as a typical Keaton jaunt.
While it is slow to get moving, it is important to say that it does hit its stride. For me, the moment it evolved from the first disappointment I’ve experienced with Keaton to something approaching his better work is when Keaton and Snitz have to resort to training as boxers. In particular, the moment where Keaton tells Snitz to calm down his driving as the country folk aren’t acclimatised to his city style of driving. Cue a scene of cars recklessly driving on this humble country road, almost as if there are 10 intersecting lanes instead of the two. There’s also the aforementioned training sequence in which Snitz and Keaton train in gear that could only be described as the type of clothing working men would wear to the pub after a hard shift in the Pit. The best scene, though, and the justification for including this movie in the boxset instead of more well-known titles in the Cameraman, or College, is when Keaton gets in the ring. After a lifetime watching wrestling, seeing Keaton utterly fail to climb through the ropes is about as funny as anything he has ever done. Then there are the fights themselves, Keaton doesn’t sail by, on the contrary, whether sparring or the ferocious fight he has with the real battling butler in the last scene – he takes a beating and gives one too.
This may well be lesser Buster Keaton but from the silent movies he did with Fatty Arbuckle to the less ambitious titles he did after the commercial failure of the General tanked his career, each and every one of his films has something to offer and that’s purely thanks to his philosophy as a performer. It all comes down to one simple fact, he always put his body on the line and that makes every one of his films worth the price of admission alone, as no-one in cinema history has got so much fun out of such a little frame.