Not quite super-human, and certainly not alien (he’s much too earthy for that), Buster Keaton is in some ways…extra-human? Alt-human? No mere man or woman can or should endure the brutal beatings inflicted upon poor Buster’s body, but not only does Keaton endure them, he does so without visible complaint. Or barely visible. I want to say he’s a, or even the model of forbearance in cinema, but again that seems a too human-based word. As Buster most often takes punishment like an inanimate object, it’s less forbearance than simply being. In the world of comic action and reaction, Buster Keaton just is.
That, of course, doesn’t stop the punishment, as is amply proven in this dual release featuring Go West (1925) and Battling Butler (1926). The latter film in particular finds Keaton’s character getting pummeled pretty badly, before giving back just as good. Keaton plays Alfred Butler, a pampered aristocrat who, in order to impress and retain the affections of a farm girl, pretends to be a professional boxer, also named Alfred Butler. The ensuing film is a revolving identity door, with Keaton getting deeper and deeper into his deception, until forced to prove himself in and out of the ring.
Keaton’s athleticism was always evident, but in Battling Butler we get to see him in fine fighting form, if not a top-echelon pugilist than one helluva contender. He could be believable as a bum, a boxer or a dandy. He looks incredibly dapper when slicked up, and his iconic non-expression is ideal for playing bored aristocrats. In truth, this non-expression is nothing of the kind; rather, its modulations are so finely calibrated as to be beneath normal human detection. Here, his heavy eyelids, weighty with ennui, just as soon retract when his character is provoked, like an owl on high alert.
The film was based on a successful stage play and the structure shows. Where many of Buster’s other silent features move through escalating comic episodes in constructions comparable to the whacked-out house of his short masterpiece “One Week,” Battling Butler feels more theatrically blocky, if never really stage-bound.
In fact, much of its humor happens outdoors. Encouraged by his exasperated father to rough it, Alfred can’t resist bringing the city with him: his tent in the woods includes a brass bed, a bear rug, and a butler, played by the great craggy Snitz Edwards. Keaton and Edwards share some nice moments, such as identically moping on train steps or having the lights go out around them in an empty boxing theater. The country girl (Sally O’Neil) comes replete, of course, with a BIG father and BIG brother, brutal bumpkins willing to kill to gain a heavyweight champion son/brother-in-law.
The funniest bits are often the most brutal. Purportedly, the boxing scenes, from the training to the final battle between both Butlers, were viewed by Martin Scorsese and his actors and crew before the making of Raging Bull, and one can see why. “Authentic” seems too mild a word, as it implies a kind of alibi. This is genuine brawling; you can see, even feel Buster’s face swell.
Special features for Battling Butler include excerpts from a Keaton-penned screenplay for a tantalizing but unproduced 1947 remake, and photographs from the 1922 stage production.
Go West (1925)
Go West is in some ways Keaton’s take on Charles Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), with the kid replaced by a cow. Keaton plays a character named Friendless—perhaps the ideal moniker for his entire cinematic persona—who, after trading all his belongings, bed included, for a loaf of bread and some meat, heads west.
Every actor wants to make a Western, and comedians are no exception. Keaton knew a good genre when he had one, and he made a real Western, while still getting the most out of his townie-out-West bit. Although his cowboy walk is exaggerated, he does it right there in the dust, and though stuck with a totally inadequate gun that drops into the bottom of its holster, it isn’t long before he’s proving himself the most cow-ish of cowboys.
It’s funny and odd seeing Keaton interact with animals, rather than the usual humans or material contraptions. Initially curious and prodding, like a puppy poking a new toy, ultimately he gives animals the same utilitarian space that he does mechanical objects. Given a stool and a bucket to milk a cow, Friendless places the bucket under the udders, sits on the stool at the cow’s head and waits for it to do its job. Later he shows a laying chicken the same patience.
Though there is a girl (Kathleen Myers), she isn’t really the love interest. In a touching “Androcles and the Lion” moment, Friendless pulls a debilitating rock from the hoof of the subsequently endeared Brown Eyes, a cow whose doleful bovine eyes are almost no match for Keaton’s own. Again his supposed non-expressivity is challenged; after Brown Eyes she kisses him, his face almost gives.
Raymond Durgnat, in his book on comedy The Crazy Mirror, wrote of Keaton as sometimes displaying “a fastidious delicacy worthy of Dorian Gray fingering rose-petals,” and we see some of that delicacy in Keaton’s interactions with Brown Eyes. In some ways, this is Buster at his most tender and emotional. It takes a cow to break him.
There are some nice self-reflexive gags, showing just how popular the comedian was, and how recognizable were his trademarks: Threatened at gunpoint to smile, he must resort to using his fingers to push up the sides of his immobile mouth, a nod to Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) as well as his own stoic persona. At another point, he’s forced into a debate: cowboy hat or pork pie?
The great thrill of the film is Keaton’s herding of cattle through the streets of Los Angeles, an event that makes for some hilariously startling juxtaposition of cows and department stores, as well as satiric analogies between cows and humans. At one point, I was reminded a bit of Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), and wondered whether if, just as Scorsese and crew watched Battling Butler, Hawks ran Go West. There is a similar traffic-jamming of civilization and wilderness as when, in Red River, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) herds the cattle through the streets of Abilene, encouraged by Mayor Harry Carey to “Keep ‘em coming…” Needless to say, Keaton’s Friendless gets a different kind of welcome.
Extras include an audio recording of Keaton riffing on Chaplin’s The Kid, and brainstorming ideas for TV’s Wagon Train; and a Western-themed Hal Roach short starring—what else?—monkeys.