Battling Butler Review
This DVD is part of Kino's The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton's silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn't expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score - in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.
Buster Keaton made two features in 1926: a towering masterpiece that ranks among the greatest screen comedies ever made, and a relatively lacklustre effort that's arguably his weakest independent feature. One of them was a huge hit - the biggest he would enjoy that decade - while the other was a calamitous flop that would have dire consequences for his future career.
So which film did the public turn out in droves to support? That's right - they shunned The General and flocked to Battling Butler, probably the most anonymous, anodyne film he made in the 1920s. There are certainly flashes of authentic Keaton magic, but for the most part the film is relatively uninspired, and it's somewhat unfortunate that the word 'Lightweight' keeps popping up on screen: intended to describe a boxing category, it's also a perfect summing-up of the film as a whole.
That said, the first third gets off to a promising start - Keaton returns to the spoilt playboy character he played in The Saphead and The Navigator, this time portraying one Alfred Butler, a man so pampered that when his despairing parents force him to go on a camping trip to make a man of himself, he takes his faithful manservant with him and makes him do all the work, not least erecting a marquee-sized tent replete with every possible creature comfort.
While doing his best to avoid communing with nature (the single funniest moment in the film sees the duo walking through the woods past almost every woodland creature yet catalogued, and complaining that "there's nothing to shoot") Butler meets and falls in love with a pretty mountain girl. Ordering his manservant to deliver a formal marriage proposal to her family, they respond that he's a pathetic weakling - but as coincidence would have it, that day's paper contains an article about the triumphs of a boxer who also just happens to be called Alfred Butler.
Helpfully, this pre-television era makes it very easy to maintain this subterfuge at the start, and the girl and her family are enthralled by a radio account of Butler's latest triumph. Since he wins the fight, he has to go on to fight the legendary Alabama Murderer... so Keaton checks into the same training camp and tries to keep up the pretence - even when it becomes clear that the only way he can avoid confessing his deception is to swap places with the real Battling Butler and prepare to fight the Alabama Murderer himself.
This, sadly, is where the film goes downhill. First of all, when Keaton strips off and enters the ring to begin training, it's blindingly obvious that he has the body of the formidable athlete that he was in real life - a far cry from the pampered wimp he's been portraying. Secondly, the training scenes just aren't that funny, not least because they go on much too long. And thirdly, the dramatic climax, while it features an impressively staged (and surprisingly brutal) fight - I'm not going to give away plot spoilers by naming the participants - seems somewhat perfunctory compared with the build-up: it's certainly got the weakest ending of any of Keaton's 1920s features.
As for the DVD, the picture quality is mostly pretty good, albeit replete with scratches, but the last reel deteriorates significantly, with rather more obvious damage and jump cuts. The music is rather less imaginative than the majority of the Kino scores, without much of a clear relationship to the images (I've become so used to the discreet addition of sound effects that it was quite jarring to see the boxing matches start with an entirely silent bell!). There are thirteen chapter stops.
The Haunted House
The Haunted House (1921) is mostly knockabout slapstick, though it's inventive and amusing enough. Buster plays a bank cashier who gets mistaken for a thief after an accident with a pot of glue and a wad of banknotes (don't ask), and after being chased by the bank's employees and the police winds up in an allegedly haunted house - which is actually a perfectly normal house that's been tricked out with various mechanical contraptions (most notably the central staircase, which can switch from steps to a smooth and slippery ramp in seconds) and various hired hands disguised as ghosts and skeletons, all part of a cunning plot on the part of the real bank robbers to throw the cops off the scent. And when a local performance of 'Faust' goes disastrously wrong, three actors are chased out of the theatre and also end up hiding out in the house, tricked out in full Mephistophelean regalia.
Confused yet? It doesn't really matter, as all this is just an elaborate excuse for a series of sight gags, and these come thick and fast enough to stave off any slight regret that it ultimately consists mostly of a lot of men running around hitting each other. Also, the stairs gag is repeated once too often for comfort, though it would be churlish not to admit that its final appearance in the heaven-and-hell dream sequence is truly inspired. To be honest, the haunted house scenes are the film's weakest part, and pale by comparison with the opening and closing scenes, though there is one eerily surreal moment where two skeletons physically assemble a man out of various body parts, who then comes to life and thanks them (there's no rational explanation offered for this, which suggests that in this instance Keaton wasn't so much interested in narrative plausibility as creating effective sight gags - somewhat unusually, for him).
The print is very badly scratched, and the tinted night scenes suffer from a lack of detail - but all in all it's perfectly watchable. The music is by the ever-versatile Robert Israel, and does its job effectively enough. There are five chapter stops.
The Frozen North
An opening title informs us that the 17-minute The Frozen North currently only exists in a fragmented state, and that the version on the DVD is the longest available. This may explain some of the non sequiturs, but all in all I couldn't work out whether this deeply strange 1922 short just isn't that funny or whether it simply went way over my head.
It starts off well, with Keaton attempting to hold up a gambling den with the aid of a cut-out cowboy propped up against the window, but the rest of the film is a semi-coherent mishmash of sight gags (mostly based around snow) and take-offs of florid 1920s melodramas. Jim Kline's invaluable The Complete Films of Buster Keaton claims that the film is primarily a satirical parody of the work of the then-popular cowboy star William S Hart, but that's going to be pretty meaningless to audiences eighty years on.
The one positive thing I can say about the print on this DVD is that it hasn't suffered any serious chemical damage, but in all other respects it's pretty awful: riddled with dust spots, scratched to ribbons and so contrasty that you can forget about appreciating any fine details (there are plenty of jarring jump cuts as well, an inevitable side-effect of the film's extreme rarity). The music is for solo piano by Alexander Rannie, and does a decent if unspectacular job of accompanying the action. There are four chapter stops.
All in all, this is probably the least interesting of the discs in Kino's ten-DVD Keaton collection in that it doesn't even have the saving grace of a really classic short to compensate for the feature being second rate. Obviously, Keaton completists will snap this up, but to be honest I'd recommend almost any of the other Kino discs before this one.