Buster Busting

Buster Keaton begins Battling Butler as a snobbish, affluent dolt. He’s never done anything for himself, worrying his father who questions his son’s masculinity. Kicked out of the house, off Keaton goes to the woods to fend for himself – with a butler though. And a tent. Plus a wardrobe. There’s a small kitchen too.

Battling Butler takes Keaton from pampered to violent. It’s a quirky switch, involving ‘20s era machismo, a simple romance, and mistaken identity. There’s a lot to love here, a speedy silent that keeps variety high and pacing splendid.

By the third act, it’s a boxing movie. Keaton begins training and sparring without ever knowing how to throw a punch. He almost hangs himself in the ropes. Unlike later choreography, no one seems to be pulling punches either; they swing for contact. That builds up inside Keaton’s Alfred Butler (now a comically tinged named considering Batman’s assistant), leading to a showdown with the prize fighter sharing his name.

[Battling Butler] is a suitable scenario for Keaton’s pratfalls, awkwardness, and stunts

They brawl in a scene of complete chaos, throwing blows in every direction in one of the most authentically violent fights of that era – and even now. Martin Scorsese once stated The Butler’s boxing influenced Raging Bull. Scorsese was quoted, speaking of Keaton’s style: “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies.” Apparently, the best style is to go for it in full, ignoring theatrics.

Even before that final reel, Battling Butler’s energy creates an enjoyable, amiable story of lies and love. Contemporary rom coms owe Battling Butler plenty as Keaton keeps up his tough guy routine, convincing his new wife that yes, he is indeed a lightweight champion. It’s important to impress her brother and father too, manly man men who only respect this newcomer because of his macho status.

Keaton gravitated toward these roles. Steamboat Bill Jr. focused similarly on a weakling. It’s a suitable scenario for Keaton’s pratfalls, awkwardness, and stunts, bringing his characters from nothing to something by fate, will, or dumb luck. The latter is Battling Butler. He plays a man avoiding work and life, but to keep the girl, needs to shatter his own shell. Or in this case, have someone shatter it for him with a slew of body shots.

Video

Cohen Films strikes this transfer from a new master, cobbled together (in a way) from a different prints, including the original negative, which somehow still survived for this process. There’s visible shift between the generational prints and negative. Watching the first reel (generational) turn over around 15-minutes (to the negative) presents a dazzling leap in sharpness and clarity.

The lesser reels catch some excessive damage scrubbing, the results evident at range. A filtered appearance saps texture from the forest areas, leaving things lightly waxy. Nothing too severe though, and fine grain does still sit over the image. Plus, nearly all damage fades. Other than a rather ugly series of spots around 43-minutes, Battling Butler hardly looks its age.

Note the sepia tint for much of the runtime. But a few shots stick to B&W, and sepia is laid on heavy, enough to take some zip from the contrast. Plus, limited bit depth causes a slight struggle for the encode moving into the shadows. Blocking appears, although likely only an issue for those on larger screens.

Audio

A new score in DTS-HD 5.1 keeps to the front soundstage with fine dynamics. Some low-end kick accentuates comedic moments. Highs sustain with pure fidelity.

Extras

Sharing a disc with Seven Chances, bonus feature The Daredevil interviews filmmakers and historians about Keaton’s stunt work, and runs a little under four minutes. There’s also a new trailer made for this restoration.

Battling Butler
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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Movie

Buster Keaton swings for the fences (and faces) in the splendidly wild Battling Butler, a story of romance, fighting, and… more fighting.

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