Sooner or later, nearly all silent clowns found themselves in the ring: looking pitiful in boxing shorts, making a mockery of the Marquess of Queensbury. Buster Keaton, who liked to say that he’d been “brought up being knocked down” in his family’s roughhouse vaudeville act, took the fight game more seriously in his seventh feature film, Battling Butler (1926). But then, seriousness was his comic trademark. He learned as a child that if he grinned to show audiences he wasn’t hurt after being hurled across the stage, they didn’t laugh; if he maintained a solemn, unruffled deadpan, they went to pieces.
He saw a good property for himself in Battling Buttler, a musical comedy starring Charlie Ruggles that had run for 313 performances on Broadway in 1923–24. There were rich possibilities for physical comedy in the premise of a wealthy milquetoast who is forced, through a series of far-fetched coincidences and misunderstandings, to train as a boxer. The story also lent itself well to the arc Keaton followed in most of his features: that of a sheltered, hapless young man who, spurred by love and other extremities, finds his own ingenuity and grit.
This arc requires Keaton to convincingly play an effete, incompetent wimp, quite a stretch given his knockabout upbringing, mechanical genius, and surpassing athleticism. He first revealed this gift when he was cast wildly against type as Bertie “the Lamb” Van Alstyne in Herbert Blaché and Winchell Smith’s The Saphead (1920), a film version of a wheezy stage farce. In 1920, on the brink of his debut as a solo star-director, no audience had seen Keaton in anything but baggy pants and slapshoes, taking pratfalls and sacks of flour in the face. Yet the role of a pampered scion fit him like a kid glove. A slight lift of the eyebrows and droop of the eyelids turned his chiseled face into a mask of exquisite hauteur, and his acrobatic body could assume the repose of total passivity. Silver-spoon roles suited his innate elegance and restraint, the innocence and pure-hearted gallantry that he projected on screen. He was, as a perceptive New York Times review of The Saphead put it, a “gentleman of comedy.”
He recycled this character in several of his own films, most directly as the peerless twit Rollo Treadway in The Navigator (1924). As Alfred Butler, he is introduced lounging in evening clothes, being fussed over by a footman, his valet, and his doting mother. No human being could look more docile, more helpless; a life muffled in swansdown has rendered him virtually comatose. Yet there is nothing mean-spirited or even condescending in Keaton’s caricatures of wealthy idlers: they bring out his delicacy and sweetness, as well as his sharp but bemused eye for absurdity. Packed off by his father on a camping trip intended to toughen him up, Alfred sleeps in a vast tent furnished with a brass bed, Chinese screen, and polar-bear rug; his valet draws his bath, lays out his clothes, irons his newspaper, and serves his meals in silver dishes.
As Martin, Alfred’s pint-sized Jeeves, Keaton cast Snitz Edwards, a Budapest-born Jewish character actor who also appears in Seven Chances and College, and here becomes a full-fledged comedy partner. A tiny man with the face of a lovable gargoyle, Edwards matches Keaton’s sedate pace and refinement in these scenes, which are filled with gentle humor as Alfred, modeling a series of high-fashion sporting ensembles, demonstrates his serene ineptitude at hunting and fishing. Submerged up to his neck after capsizing his boat, he politely lifts his hat to a passing “Mountain Girl” and invites her to dinner. Sally O’Neil, an adorably petite brunette, was only eighteen when Keaton borrowed her from MGM to play his leading lady but she had already costarred with Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford in Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). A former vaudevillian under the name “Chotsie Noonan,” she enjoyed a brief stardom, usually as a feisty Irish lass, but left Hollywood not long after starring in John Ford’s The Brat (1931). After a meet-cute in which the Mountain Girl assails Alfred with rocks and invective, their romance is swift and sweet. Her redwood-size menfolk are more skeptical—until they are told their prospective in-law is Alfred “Battling” Butler, contender for the lightweight world’s championship.
It is through this imposture, and the nastiness of the real boxer, that poor Alfred finds himself in the ring, training for a big fight. He is meant to look puny and defenseless, but once he strips down to shorts there’s no hiding how fit and muscular Keaton really was. Despite his sculpted body, he plays the early training scenes so realistically that they’re at times more painful than funny to watch. He reacts the way any normal, soft-bellied person would to being mercilessly pummeled—it’s easy to forget that he was not a normal, soft-bellied person at all. Buster brought in a friend, welterweight champ Mickey Walker, to consult on the fight scenes, and put his own Euclidian mind to the task of exploring every possible way to get entangled in the ropes.
The source play lets the title character off the hook without having to face the big fight, but Keaton felt this was dramatically unsatisfying—that you couldn’t give the audience a big buildup with no payoff—so he added a scene in which the sadistic boxer attacks his namesake in the dressing room. Pushed too far, humiliated too deeply, the meek millionaire finally reacts with violent fury. Some Keaton fans dislike this climactic, entirely non-comic fight, feeling the savagery is out of character. It is extremely rare for Buster to show such anger on screen or to dish out the kind of punishment he regularly took, but he was by all accounts pleased with the strong dramatic finish. In real life, Keaton paid a high price for his refusal of confrontation, his tendency to bury his feelings and withdraw into passivity. Perhaps he enjoyed playing a character who lets go and fights back.
Keaton’s physical courage and stoicism were legendary and nearly pathological—he endured numerous injuries and often risked his life while making his films—but on screen he breaks the cartoon rules of slapstick to reveal pain and exhaustion. His underlying seriousness and clear-eyed realism are the ballast to his flights of comic imagination; beneath his celebrated deadpan, his feelings run all the deeper for being held in reserve. Those writers who have, bizarrely, claimed that Keaton’s characters express no emotion and elicit no sympathy must never have watched his films with an audience and heard the cheers, wincing gasps, and “awws” interspersed with the laughs.
Battling Butler was one of Keaton’s biggest box office hits. He always recalled it fondly, but it is not a favorite of many fans today and has become one of his least-seen efforts. Coming in between the charmingly offbeat Go West (1925) and his sublime masterpiece The General (1927), it has little of the otherworldliness or the fantastical set-pieces that were his trademark. Though comparatively prosaic, Battling Butler displays Keaton’s maturity and deftness as a director (and editor—he cut all his own films), with occasional flourishes like the tender shot in which Sally O’Neil’s face is framed in the rear window of the car as Alfred drives away, which rhymes with a later shot of her framed in the crook of a boxing coach’s arm. Visual storytelling came naturally to Keaton, both as an actor and as a filmmaker; action was his native tongue. He speaks with his body, his face, and his camera; few artists have ever had less need of words.
His qualities as a performer were exactly the same as those of his movies: the same reticence and precision, the same unadorned, functional beauty. His uniquely understated style made him one of nature’s aristocrats, but it didn’t come from any effort to be “classy.” He simply knew what was right, and had the confidence to let it stand without fuss or fanfare. That he was also very funny can seem like the icing on the cake, but it is not: his ability to see humor in frustrations and failures was his greatest gift—and ours.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra