Usually I try to dedicate my silent film of the month post to a more obscure or forgotten movie and would not do a Buster Keaton silent feature. While Battling Butler is not obscure or forgotten, it is often overlooked. It is probably the least talked about of all of Buster's silent feature films. However this is a bit unfair as it is a hilarious movie.
The story is one of simple mistaken identity. Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton) is a pampered rich man, who has always had everything in life handed to him on a silver platter. He falls in love with a woman (Sally O'Neil), whose family considers him a wimp. His butler (Snitz Edwards) finds out that Alfred Butler is also the name of a boxer, so to put him in good with his girlfriend's family the butler tells them that he is the famous boxer. This leads to Alfred having to actually fight in the boxing ring.
This movie was surprisingly based off a British stage musical of the same name, yet Buster was perfectly able to make this a Buster Keaton film and not simply an adaption.
This movie has just as many laughs as anyone could want from a silent Buster Keaton feature. There are so many laugh out loud funny moments here. I love Buster's version of "roughing it" and Buster's training are Keaton comedy at its finest and funniest. The final shot is also Buster's humor at his best. The plot while simple is beautifully woven together showing that Buster was just as great a filmmaker as a comedian. With all the broad slapstick. Buster also puts some subtle but masterful bits of filmmaking here.
One of the most surprising parts of this film is the climatic fight. Throughout most of this movie, slapstick comedy reigns supreme. With this you may expect a slapstick boxing fight similar to what Charlie Chaplin did in City Lights (1931), but we get a more dramatic and intense final sequence. However it works perfectly, by this point in the film we have learned to care about Buster's character and plight, making this a great suspense sequence. Yet we don't feel cheated because the training sequence gave us boxing related slapstick at its best. Both the slapstick scene and the more serious scene of course feature Buster doing all his own stunts and while quite different from the stunts that he performed in say. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), they are just as impressive.
This was a very popular movie and was a major Boxoffice success. Buster himself would refer to this as his favorite of his films. For some reason unknown to me though it is often written off as a lesser Keaton film. However this does not change how great of a movie this really is and how it will still delight audiences today.
The following are some exhibitors reviews from Exhibitors Herald (in 1927)
"Battling Butler: Buster Keaton - 70% Not as good as I excepted, but it pleased all the children and the majority of the adults. Should have been put in five reels instead of seven and it would have made a far better comedy. Had a good turn out for this on New Years day, so I am satisfied. Seven Reels. - Rfeiffer, Princess theatre, Chilton, Wis. - Small Town Patronage."
"Battling Butler: Buster Keaton - 50% Fairly entertaining and in places quite funny, but in my estimation it was far from being an outstanding comedy. Everybody laughed and seemed to enjoy it but didn't receive one compliment on it or any particular knock. Played January 4-5. Homer P. Morely, Princess Theatre, Buchman, Mich. -Small Town Patronage."
"Battling Butler: Buster Keaton - Very good. Have seen Buster in better ones. Do not think that it pleased s well as 'Go West' but very good. Played December 28-29. Six Reels. Mrs. Fay Clark, Capital theatre. Hillsboro, Ia. Small Town Patronage."
"Battling Butler: Buster Keaton - 80% Keaton is always good and in 'Battling Butler' he is great. Not as many comedy situations as perhaps 'Go West' but he certainly is great in all the scenes of 'Battling Butler.' Our crowd yelled, giggled, laughed and applauded. What more can a comedy do? Played December 5-6. Six reels. A.D. Stanchfield, Rae theatre, Ann Arbor, Mich. -General patronage."
"Battling Butler: Buster Keaton - Good Buster Keaton, but not up to 'Go West,' which was his best according to our patrons. -J.J. Hoffman, Plainview theatre, Plainview, Nebr."
The following is a brief article in Moving Picture World.
"For his advance on 'Battling Butler,' Charles H. Amos, of the Carolina theatre, Greenville, S.C., used a pair of clever youngsters as a perambulator.
"First he showed them the film to let them get ideas for comedy stunts, and then he put them on a truck on which a ring had been built. The truck perambulated the streets, stopping every little while to pull off a fast and funny round.
"The same boys were used for a novel prologue. Their gloves faces, hats and shoes were treated with luminous paint and after they had been introduced the house was darkened and only the painted objects could be seen. A two minute round ended in a knock out just as the main title come on the screen."
-Michael J. Ruhland