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21 June 2016

Keaton's Battling Butler: Love, Laughs, and Courage

Today, this 1926 feature is not a critical favorite, perhaps because Keaton has been so identified with breathtaking stunts since his rediscovery in the seventies. Battling Butler is actually more of a love story, in fact, though a very funny one. Interestingly, it was his most successful independent film, and his own personal favorite.
Artist that he was, I think he might have loved it because of its purity. There are very few titles; the characters’ emotions are shown rather than described, through fine, delicate performances, and the gags flow naturally from the situations with endless inventiveness. And only the hero and the title character have names, and that because the plot depends on it -- the others are known by their roles, like "The Girl" or "His Manager." The story is very simple: Alfred Butler, a pampered, helpless rich boy is sent on a camping trip by his exasperated father to “make a man of him.” This laudable end is thwarted somewhat by the fact that he is accompanied by his super-efficient valet, played by the wonderful Snitz Edwards, who makes sure that his charge’s bathwater is hot and his dinner is served on a suitable damask cloth, even if it is in the woods. 
Alfred's palatial tent
On Alfred’s first morning in the wild, clad in a top-of-the-line hunting outfit (Keaton always was a clothes-horse!) he runs across a very pretty young girl wearing boots and sports clothes. As he politely raises his hat, she bawls him out for reckless shooting.
Alfred decides to try fishing, which does not go well. Then, seeing some ducks placidly paddling by, he climbs in a boat with his rifle and attempts to shoot one, leading to one of Keaton’s most hilarious series of gags, which culminates in his ending up standing in water up to his neck as the Girl paddles by in her boat. Politely doffing his hat, again, he slips under the water and she rescues him, taking him back to his luxurious campsite, where Snitz is preparing a meal.
The Girl tells Alfred off for careless shooting
Enchanted with the Girl, he asks her to join him for dinner, and as he changes into immaculate dinner clothes, Snitz set the table with fine linen and china. Alfred and the Girl are just about to sit down when two hulking countrymen stroll by — her father and brother. They don’t seem too impressed with Alfred. As they saunter off, he asks nervously, “Do you have any other fathers or brothers?” Then he holds her chair for her to sit down. In one of the movie’s sweetest scenes, they enjoy a romantic dinner, gazing into each other’s eyes and talking late into the night — and not even noticing that the table, set up on soft ground, has slowly sunk down to ground level.
The start of their dinner date
Naturally, Alfred offers to see the Girl home. Accepting his hat and walking stick from Snitz, he offers his arm and they set out through the woods, chatting animatedly. Unfortunately, when he reaches her gate, he realizes that he has no idea how to get back. So she sees him home.
The next morning, he tells Snitz that he’s decided he’d like .to marry the girl. “Arrange it,” he says. When she comes by to see him, he works up the courage to ask her — and she says yes. But her family don’t exactly see it that way until Snitz has the bright idea of telling her father and brother that he is, in fact, the lightweight boxer who shares his name — Alfred “Battling”
The end of their dinner date
Butler. This works well up to a point, but unfortunately Battling’s schedule has been printed in the newspaper, and the father and brother helpfully see Alfred off on the train to his next fight, which is the next day.
Alfred and Snitz attend the fight, which Battling wins by a knockout, to Alfred’s chagrin. Next, Battling is scheduled to fight the Alabama Murderer. Alfred decides to do the right thing and go back and tell the Girl the truth. “I’d rather loose her that way, “ he says. Disconsolately, he and Snitz board the train taking them back to the mountains. And when they reach her town, to Alfred’s horror, he is met by a welcoming brass band ready to escort him
After seeing Battling Butler fight
to the Girl’s house. Hopelessly, he goes along, unable to think of anything else to do.
But unbeknownst to Alfred and Snitz, the real Battling Butler is on the same train, and he is seriously annoyed to find another guy, as he thinks, impersonating him. Meanwhile, instead of confessing to the Girl and giving her up as he expected, Alfred finds that his new prospective in-laws have, as a nice surprise, scheduled a wedding right away. The Girl appears in a lovely bridal gown and veil, and Alfred can’t help going through with it. Most unfortunately, the announcement of the real Battling’s next fight is printed in the newspaper — and he’s starting training the next day. “You’ll have to leave right away,” the new father-in-law says.
Married but no honeymoon
“I’ll pack my things,” his new bride tells him. But Alfred takes her aside and tells her he doesn’t want her to see him fight.
They sadly say goodbye, and Snitz picks him up in the Rolls. There’s a beautiful shot where Alfred looks longingly out the back window as his bride recedes in the distance. They decide to go to the site of Battling’s training camp so he can write to her from there.
At the same time, the real Battling’s attractive wife has arrived at the local hotel (”Silver Warm Springs”). Annoyed at being shut out of the training area, she goes for a walk to pick flowers, and breaks the heel of her shoe — and gets a ride back from the gentlemanly Alfred, who just happens to be driving by. With his impeccable manners, he hands her out of the car on arriving at the hotel — and this is witnessed with some ire by Battling. It turns out that Mrs. Battling is a flirt, and Battling is the jealous type, which does not bode well for Alfred. To add to his troubles, his new wife arrives at the hotel and insists on staying.
Mr and Mrs Butler meet Mr and Mrs Butler
Battling tells his team to train Alfred as best they can, because he will not be fighting the Alabama Murderer. So the pampered Alfred is forced to attempt the training regimen of a professional boxer, which leads to another series of gags. After three weeks the real Battling has not returned, so Alfred is afraid — very much afraid — that he will be actually have to fight the Murderer. The night of the scheduled fight arrives and Alfred’s troubles continue to multiply — his new wife arrives, determined to see him fight. Snitz manages to distract her. While this is going on, the real Battling has arrived, gone into the ring, and knocked out the Alabama Murderer. He comes back to the dressing room and Alfred says, gratefully, “Thank you for saving me!” “You think I’d miss a title bout just to get even with you?” Battling sneers, advancing menacingly on Alfred.
Just getting into the ring presents a problem
Then he starts to aim blows at Alfred, derisively at first, but with painful power behind them. Panic stricken, Alfred backs away, trying ineffectively to protect his torso. Shitz rushes in to try and help,  but is thrown to the floor. Alfred’s wife appears and sees what is happening, and Alfred sees her watching. This is the one thing he can’t stand — furiously, he begins to strike back at Battling, to the latter’s astonishment. Alfred forgets everything in his need to gain the respect of his wife; he hits back with such fury that he actually knocks the champion out! The manager rushes in and drags Battling away. 
She sees his fight with the real Battling
Alfred is left alone with his wife. He tells her the truth, even though it means losing her forever. “I’m not Battling Butler; I’m not even a fighter.” She says simply, “I’m glad.”
They only have eyes for each other
Alfred can hardly believe it. She loves him anyway. Wonderingly he takes her face between his gloved hands and kisses her.
The last shot sees Mr and Mrs Alfred Butler walking down the street, blind to everything but each other — oblivious to the fact that Alfred is still wearing boxing trunks and gloves.
In essence, this is a deeply romantic love story. Keaton always treated women with respect, and the character of the girl is an excellent example --  she is not silly, she is not flighty, she is not dishonest (qualities that so often provide plots for inferior stories). Played by the very attractive (but not overly glamorous) Sally O'Neill, she is a good-hearted, frank girl, clearly the best thing that has ever happened to Alfred. Almost the only thing he has going for him — besides his exquisite manners — is the fact that he realizes this at once. What really "makes a man" of him, and enables him to stand up to a mean bully like Battling, is her love and belief in him, which never wavers.

The entire film, in a pretty good print with a musical soundtrack, is available on Youtube

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