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Film Review

Battling Butler (1926)

IMDB link
Running time: 1h 17min
Directed by Buster Keaton
Written by (adapted from the 1923 stage success of the same name) Paul Gerard Smith, Al Boasberg, Charles Henry Smith
Starring Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Sally O’Neil

Buster Keaton is a silent era figure of Hollywood who I have vaguely known about for years now, but who I had never, until watching Battling Butler, bothered to get more acquainted with. I was always more of a Charles Chaplin guy, for no other reason really than for his films being on TV when I was a kid. Battling Butler is a comedy about a young high class fop named Alfred Butler (Keaton) who must find some measure of manliness in order to become a Man(tm). He goes about this endeavor by going hunting, gentleman style, with his butler – or perhaps one should use the term “manservant” in order to avoid confusion. Battling Butler being a comedy, it is not surprising that shooting the wildlife does not come without a fair amount of tomfoolery and assorted boobery. During this escapade into the wilderness Alfred Butler happens to meet a local country girl, falls in love, and ends up impersonating a somewhat famous boxer in order to impress her and his overly masculine family members.

Watching films as old as Battling Butler is a bit like time traveling – while that obviously holds true for most movies, it is much more apparent with truly old material where even the technical limitations of filmmaking continually remind of the fact. Having grown up watching Chaplin films and enjoying the original black and white King Kong (1933) as an adult, black and white silent films from the ancient past are not a challenge for me to sit through, but I imagine that for some, especially younger people, it might be difficult to even consider giving them a chance. Film nerds and truly old people aside, cinema of ages past is not appealing to most people, especially if one has to go out of their way for it (if it is not just on TV randomly, especially since traditional TV watching has been dying off in recent years). And while there is such a cornucopia of audiovisual content out there, why would a layperson willingly seek out its ancestors? I should note, despite of the above, that I have not watched that many silent era films either. There are definitely aspects of movies as old as this that one can easily find clumsy or boring compared to modern films; the pacing, the technological limitations, the lack of “shock value”, the lack of color and spoken dialogue, and so on. But there is also charm and likability, as well as perhaps a sense of innocence.

Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton) and “The Mountain Girl” aka Love Interest (Sally O’Neil)

From a technical standpoint, I think Battling Butler is still perfectly watchable. One thing that is apparent, aside from the obvious lack of color and spoken dialogue, is that the camera rarely moves at all. Most of the shots are static, which is in direct contrast to filmmaking these days. It works fine for a film like this, but obviously for other genres the lack of camera movement could be a problem. I watched a restored version, and while the quality was quite good, some of the film material looked quite grainy, but that is to be expected with a film as old as this. Keaton is known for his stunts, and there are some good ones in this, though nothing truly spectacular. The highlights of the film for me were Butler “hunting” and him boxing at the end. Those sequences are what I think makes this film still noteworthy.

Butler’s lack of manliness, inexperience in violence, and ignorance about pugilism is often made fun of

The plot is decent and serves as a decent excuse for the comedy, though I should note that it feels like that there is less comedy in favor of drama than in Chaplin’s films – not that that is a negative thing necessarily, just adjust expectations accordingly. The acting is markedly different from what people are used to these days, of course, this being a silent film: the gestures and facial expressions are more exaggerated to convey the action and emotion, and the makeup is not exactly subtle. Overall I found the film to be pretty good, but not great. The story is fairly basic, but it works and does not really need to be more complex. The comedy was good as well, though I do still find Chaplin more enjoyable in this regard.

Whatever gets the job done

Someone more interested in the subject matter could perhaps write an essay about toxic masculinity and societal expectations in Battling Butler / the world of 1920s, but I am not interested or qualified to do so. But let me still illustrate this by recapping a bit: a young, perhaps a bit effeminate, upper class chap must become a Man to meet the expectations of society, and even more so in order to win the heart of the Love Interest and to gain the acceptance and respect of her family. Or put in a more poetic way: buffoonish bozo (Buster) becomes better by besting boxing, beating bad-mannered prize pugilist Battling Butler. There is much struggle involved but in the end there is also reward, and good triumphs over evil. I am sure the story would not be told quite the same way these days. However, it is not as black and white as I made it sound, as Keaton’s character is portrayed sympathetically throughout his journey, despite him being the butt of the joke many times, and the more masculine characters of the film are portrayed as either somewhat simple or evil. So one could argue that Battling Butler is a shocking display of toxic masculinity, or that it is progressive for its time. But I said I was not going to write an essay about this, so let us move on from this topic.

Live streaming of the 1920s

Battling Butler is a film that most people will never watch or even hear about. It is an interesting piece of film history, and still an enjoyable experience. For anyone on the fence after reading this review, one thing that will perhaps tip the scales is the running time of 1h 17min, which will make Battling Butler an easy watch compared to many others. I will at some point check out Keaton’s most famous and most well-received film, The General (1926), but that might take me a long while.

Rating: 7.0 / 10

Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 0

Would I want to rewatch this film? Not anytime soon, but maybe some day

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