Alfred Butler, played by Keaton, is a young member of an affluent family and an example of the idle rich. His father sends him off to camp in the wilderness so that he can learn to “become a man and learn to take care of himself.” Off he goes with his valet, played by Edward Snitz. His valet does everything from driving him around, to making his meals, to ashing his cigarettes for him.
While out camping he runs into a young lady (O’Neil),that he wishes to marry. However, his spoon fed lifestyle leaves a bad impression with the young lady’s father and brother. In order to prove his he is not a weakling, he pretends to be an up and coming boxer that shares his name, Alfred “Battling” Butler.
Alfred digs himself deeper and deeper into his ruse and eventually finds himself training to fight Battling Butler’s next challenger, The Alabama Murderer.
Bringing the romantic comedy to life on film.
Keaton was defining the romantic comedy in each of the film’s that came out in his heyday. Battling Butler is no exception. The original Battling Butler story, taken from the musical stage play Battling Buttler, was written by Stanley Brightman, Austin Melford, and Douglas Furber. Keaton changed the story to follow a young love interest instead of a husband trying to escape a “domineering wife”. (Curtis, 2022)
Alfred’s father sends him on a mission at the beginning of the film to go get his hands dirty and become a self-reliant man. His endeavors prove fruitless as he makes little attempt to actually do things on his own and relies solely on his valet. It is not until he meets the young lady that he begins to go down the path of “becoming a man”.
The attempt to prove himself worthy to her is based around his old methods of avoiding any real work. he is hoping that he can fake his way through the process and still get the reward. His attempt is fraught with disappointment as the boxer wins his bouts and Alfred must continue to get more and more involved in physical activity.
When the boxer learns of Alfred’s scheme, he finds it humorous. He tells Alfred that he can continue to impersonate him, but he will need to fight in the next match. What ensues is Alfred’s true path of becoming a man. He must convert himself from his soft persona that will do whatever it takes to avoid work and pain into a full fledged boxer.
In the end, he proves that he has what it takes to stand up for himself and hold his own and stays true to his more gentle outlook on life. Ultimately, the girl wanted him not to be a fighter and is pleased. However, without Alfred believing she wanted a fighter he never would have had what it takes to be a self driven and independent individual able to care for her.
This narrative is one that comes up time and time again in the rom-com genre. A young man wants to prove himself to the girl of his dreams so he pretends to be what he believes she wants him to be. In the end he is found out to be an imposter and he believes all hope is lost only to find out he learned what he needed along the way and wins the girl.
There are several references made out there about the inspiration that Battling Butler had on Martin Scorsese for his classic 1980 film, Raging Bull. Kevin J Hayes notes the significance in the introduction to the book Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
Raging Bull owes an important debt to the heritage of the boxing film genre. take Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), for example… As the opening credits end, Battling Butler depicts a close-up of a bell, which clangs to start a round of boxing. After this shot, however, the film does not cut to a boxing match; rather, it cuts to a steely mansion where the film’s story begins. As Scorsese would more than a half century later, Keaton deliberately paralleled the cinema with the boxing arena.(Kevin J. Hayes, 2005, p. 10)
The way that Keaton weaves the boxing into the film’s narrative and makes it part of the film as a whole is important. The boxing aspect of Battling Butler is not just thrown into the narrative randomly, its existence in the film is specific and purposeful. The role boxing plays is to parallel the character development of Alfred Butler.
The boxing also highlights the role of violence in society and the need for men to show their brawn. There is a clash between what it means to be a man and the man’s physical strength. It is like a coming of age film for a generation trying to make their way to adulthood without having to strong arm those around them to show that they are tough.
…Alfred Butler, happens to sit next to the manager of a boxer named Alfred “Battling” Butler. The manager cannot watch the fight without mimicking the punches of the boxers he sees. The kind of behavior the manager exemplifies would become commonplace of the boxing film… Both Keaton and Scorsese recognized the boxing ring as a microcosm revealing the violence endemic to modern society.(Kevin J. Hayes, 2005, p. 10)
The boxing in the film is not necessarily gritty, however it shows the fights in a less than common manner. Instead of the fixed camera side view of the ring and two boxers trading punches, Keaton shows the fights from multiple angles and with scrappier fights. Scorsese himself noted the different approach that Keaton had in his book, Scorsese on Scorsese,
When I’d seen boxing matches between double features on Saturday afternoons as a kid, it was always from the same angle, and that’s why I became so bored. The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies for me was Buster Keaton. – (Scorsese, Martin, et al., 2003, p. 80)
Scorsese liked the fact that effort was taken to make the fighting feel more realistic and engaging. It wasn’t just about the fact that two people were fighting, it was about the energy and purpose behind their fighting. It was about what brought the fighters into the ring and their journey to get there.
Timestamped clip of the final fight sequence.
Last Film Before The General
I searched around online to try and find out how, and why, Battling Butler was released so close to the release of The General. It seemed odd, as it took a lot of time and effort to put out The General and so it would seem unlikely that Keaton would make them simultaneously. It also seemed weird to have a film come out several months after it was completed and have it contend with another project’s release. In the end I was not able to find much on the subject.
The filming for Battling Butler wrapped in March of 1926 and The General began in May. So why was the release of Battling Butler in September and The General in December. Granted the release of The General was released in Tokyo originally and released in the US in February of 1927. Perhaps that delay was to space the films out and I am just looking too much into nothing.
Directed by: Buster Keaton
Cinematography: Burt Haines & Devereaux Jennings
Original musical written by: Douglas Furber, Austin Melford, & Stanley Brightman.
Adapted screenplay By: Al Boasberg, Lex Neal, Charles Smith, & Paul Gerard Smith.
Starring: Buster Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Sally O’Neil, and Francis McDonald.
Runtime: 1h 17m
Genre: Comedy, Sport
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Link to Video Below:
Curtis, James. Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022.
Hayes, Kevin J. “Introduction: The Heritage and Legacy of Raging Bull.” Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Cambridge Univ Press, New York, 2005, pp. 10–10.
Scorsese, Martin, et al. “Chapter 4: New York, New York – The Last Waltz – Raging Bull – The King of Comedy.” Scorsese on Scorsese, Faber and Faber, London, 2003, pp. 80–80.