Batting Butler (1926) Director: Buster Keaton
As was so often the case in Buster Keaton’s films, the title Battling Butler was actually a spoof on a popular musical play entitled “Battling Buttler” (note the second “t” in “Buttler”). In the film, an effete son of an aristocrat, Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton), is accused of being weak by his father so he heads out on a hapless hunting and fishing trip in the mountains. Amidst a series of mishaps, Alfred accidentally falls in love with a rural mountain girl (Sally O’Neil). However, in order to impress her gruff, poor, working-class father, Alfred’s valet explains that despite Alfred’s slight appearance, he is in fact a famous boxer known as “Battling Butler.”
The lie entraps Alfred in a marriage and forces him to begin a lengthy training regimen in order to prep for a big Thanksgiving fight versus the “Alabama Murderer” –though his biggest challenge is successfully entering the boxing ring without becoming entangled in the ropes! When the big day finally comes, the real Battling Butler arrives and saves Alfred from being brutally beaten in the ring. However, later in the locker room the real Battling Butler starts a fight with Alfred for impersonating him. In the end, Alfred musters the courage to fight back and he actually defeats Battling Butler in the locker room, thus winning the heart of his new wife. They walk away together, arm in arm, she in her dress (rather than her fancy overcoat) and Alfred in half-boxing gear and half-top hat and cane.
Buster Keaton often described his youth as being “brought up by being knocked down” and so it only made sense that he would eventually release a boxing film. Perhaps it is a partly autobiographical tale from old stone face. There is an amusing class inversion in Battling Butler in which which an aristocrat must win the heart of a working class girl (and her family) by lowering himself to appease the crowds by pretending to be a lowly boxer. In the end, they both shed their opposing costumes to reflect their change into a blend of something new. I thought this was an apt metaphor, as she sheds any aristocratic pretense and he finds himself halfway between boxer and milquetoast, and while this film is another delight from Buster Keaton, it is not as outright hilarious nor as powerful as some of his other classics, like The General or Sherlock Jr.