d. Buster Keaton / USA / 71 mins.
It was a simple and winning formula: Buster loves a girl but she doesn't quite feel the same, so he must embark on a journey that turns rather perilous, proving not only his love to her but his ability to withstand the elements as a man should, eluding forces of nature and other suitors, to win her affection. Ideal? Perhaps not, but in many cases it proved to be comic gold, and Keaton, who led his gag and prop team to reinvent the formula for film after film, did it better than many. He deviated from it rarely, and even when he did — in a film like Go West, for example, where the girl is replaced with a friendly cow and his journey is to protect her from the slaughterhouse shipyards — the overall effect was not too different. Battling Butler, however, is a significant exception. It is not among Keaton's great films, but it is notable for the way it inverts and redistributes his patented formula. This isn't a film about a low- or middle-income man who desperately tries to get the girl; it's a film about a rich man who wins her rather easily and then begins a lie that makes him work to keep her.
Much like The Navigator and a few shorts before it, Keaton plays his standard dandy character, this time a Mr. Alfred Butler. Butler's father, seeking to toughen his son, sends him out into the forest to rough it for a while — or what passes for roughing it when you're wealthy (a valet played by Snitz Edwards, hot baths, newspaper delivery, skinned animal rugs, etc.) He and the wild do not get along, and his inability to fire a rifle lands him in hot water with a country girl (Sally O'Neill), with whom he soon falls in love. The two are seen as an odd match by all, but they're sweet together; in a great scene he escorts her home at dusk only to find he doesn't know the way back to his tent and she then escorts him home. Her burly family is skeptical, and Butler's valet, attempting to talk up his boss to the mountain clan, says he is "Battling" Butler, a boxer who shares the same name. They then approve of the marriage, only to have the timing be perfect for them to rally around Keaton's character when "Battling" Butler is to participate in a high-profile bout.
Does the fact that the protagonist is trying to retain the girl's affection instead of win it make the stakes seem any less important? Perhaps a little, and maybe only negligibly because the story still fits nicely into the Keaton universe of wry takes and taxing chores. Keaton did play a stock character that changed sometimes dramatically from film to film. Whether he is down on his luck or well-to-do, his films possess a nihilistic quality as if the universe is actively working against his tenacity the way gravity works against his actual physicality. Keaton does give himself numerous tasks and challenges to overcome, including rigorous athletic training (and eventual bouts, including some sloppy footwork in the ring) that keep him on his toes until the facade.
There's a tendency to compare, or much rather contrast, silent comedy's most famous boxing sequence — the featherweight Tramp using a referee for cover in Chaplin's City Lights — to the boxing scenes in Battling Butler. Most of us cannot help the fact that we're all but certain to have seen a Chaplin masterpiece before we see a minor Keaton, so there's a tendency to temporally view Battling Butler as something in the shadow of City Lights, a ridiculous proposition since this film precedes Chaplin's by five years. Nevertheless, it's all too rare that the comedians overlapped in critical scenes. Keaton, the more physical of the two, predictably embraces the more painful elements of boxing, unlike Chaplin, who spends time deftly avoiding his opponent. Keaton becomes trapped in the ropes of the ring and finds himself on the receiving end of a few punches. And unlike Chaplin, according to scholar Marion Meade, Keaton's boxing work sidelined him a few times: once when he fell out of the ring and hit his head, and once when he strained a ligament in his leg jumping into the ring.
But the differences, as they exist, reach maximum distance at the end of the film. If Keaton began Battling Butler seeking to invert his traditional formula, then he also seemed intent on having its ending invert a traditional formula as well. In most of his comedies, his character would either evade the bad guy or comically come to defeat him. But when the real "Battling" Butler shows up at the end of the film and begins to move in the girl, Keaton emerges rather heroically — almost like a Fairbanksian swashbuckler — to put in a serious, dramatic boxing fight in the locker room. It should be no surprise to anyone to observe how fit and athletic Keaton really was (after all, there's no other way he could have performed all those stunts), but there is still something shocking and thrilling about watching Keaton throw himself into a serious fight that more than makes up for the rather muted stakes.
Still, it's quite bewildering that Battling Butler proved to be the most popular, thus most financially bankable, of Keaton's silent films. It was a vindication for Keaton, who considered it among his favorite films, but an astonishment to most critics today. Through the ways that it immediately shifts in an unexpected direction and lets the surprises move and build upon each other, Battling Butler is surely never a disappointment, just a curious chapter of Keaton's work. To invert his classic narrative structure, to insert an honest shot at genuine drama through a decisively unfunny boxing sequence at the film's end, is (oddly enough) almost a move toward the mainstream for Keaton. Battling Butler does invoke the aura of other adventure comedies from the era, and there are moments when it distinctly feels like something Harold Lloyd might have explored if given the opportunity. But when considered against his masterpieces, it doesn't pack the same punch. Then again, there's probably nothing more Keatonian than going against the grain — in all respects — and achieving success.
22 August 2009
d. Buster Keaton / USA / 71 mins.