Saturday, June 15, 2013

El Professore Movie Reviews: Battling Butler

Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Sallo O'Neil, Walter James
* * * 1/2
I am a huge Buster Keaton fan. The Great Stone Face is by far my favorite of all the silent comics. I always found that I could relate to him better than say, Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp whom I found to be too annoyingly cute as well as too schmaltzy and sentimental. Keaten despite his ultimately lovable, downtrodden characters, had more of an edge and that in part seems to have helped age his films a bit better. This film, Battling Butler is one of his edgiest.

Full review after the break.

Keaton plays Alfred Butler a spoiled, wealthy aristocrat who is sent (butler in tow) on a hunting trip by his father in an attempt at making a man out of him. Alfred doesn't manage to kill anything, but he does fall in love with a beautiful mountain girl. Her father and two HUGE brothers scoff at him ("we don't want any weaklings in this family"), he informs them that he is the famous boxer, Battling Butler. Whimpy Alfred soon finds through a series of mishaps and missteps, that he must now become the great boxer... even if it kills him.

Battling Butler has a somewhat more deliberate setup than usual. This serves the film well as it manages to build it's humorous tension. The audience becomes steadily more curious and involved as they try to imagine how Keaton's Alfred will manage to free himself of the increasingly complicated situation. As clever as it gets however, the thing that remains in the mind is it's finale where Keaton is violently attacked by the real Battling Butler. After taking a pounding, Alfred finally and shockingly retaliates; knocking the pro out cold. Now as a fan, we know that Keaten was as physically fit a human being as we're going to see (his attempt at looking whimpy in boxing gear doesn't really ring true, to be honest), but we've grown accustomed to and comfortable with his underdog character. He usually wins in the end through wits and luck (much like his contemporary Jackie Chan does). This sequence sheds a different light on our hero as he goes from lovable loser who winds up on top, to savage, enraged fighting machine. We suddenly realize that the little guy could be quite scary and intimidating if he wanted to be. The brutality displayed must have been shocking to audiences in 1926 and it still packs a pretty decent punch (no pun intended) today. This may not be the way I'd prefer to see Keaton's characters but as a one off deal, it's a real eye opener.

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