Thursday, September 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review | "Go West/Battling Butler"

Having released such excellent blu-rays of Buster Keaton's most well known films, such as The General, Sherlock, Jr., and Our Hospitality, not to mention a stellar box set of all of Keaton's solo short films, Kino International has moved on to some of the silent comedian's lesser known works.

In the latest release from Kino Classics, the company's newly minted classic film label, we get a dual release of two admittedly minor Keaton films, Go West and Battling Butler. While both may be lesser films in Keaton's canon, cinephiles will likely find each one interesting in their own right, if for no other reason than their historical value and place in Keaton's oeuvre.

The "feature presentation" here is clearly meant to be Go West, a 1925 Western spoof that fits in more comfortably with Keaton's other work.

Keaton stars as Friendless, a young man with no prospects who decides to hop a train and head out west to make his living. Along the way, he ends up at a dude ranch where he decides to stay and work, both based on his affection for the boss' daughter, and his newfound friendship with a cow named Brown Eyes. Lots of hijinx naturally ensue as Friendless haplessly bumbles his way through ranch life, accidentally becoming a star cattle rustler and using his wits to save Brown Eyes from branding. But when she is shipped off to be butchered, he springs into action to save his new best friend, culminating in a cattle stampede through the streets of Los Angeles.

Brown Eyes and Buster Keaton in a scene from GO WEST.
The film has a certain charm about it, but it lacks the sustained energy of Keaton's better work. The climactic cattle stampede is impressive, but still not as outrageous as some of his other finale set pieces like The General's train crash/Civil War battle or Steamboat Bill, Jr.'s jaw dropping squall. It's a strangely mundane film. Friendless' friendship with Brown Eyes is sweet and amusing, but it almost seems as if Keaton is coasting. Go West arrived in the mid period of Keaton's feature career, after Sherlock Jr. and Our Hospitality, but before his masterpiece The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr (Seven Chances, which was released the same  year, is also similarly slight). It's almost as if Keaton was gearing up for that one last hurrah in the form of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. before beginning the inevitable decline that came with the sound era in 1927. 1928 saw Keaton's last great film before slipping into obscurity, and his greatest film, The General, was a box office failure.  Still, Go West shows brief glimpses of his genius, even if it seems a bit tired when compared to his other films.

1926's Battling Butler is an interesting anomaly in Keaton's career, and surprisingly, a superior effort to Go West. Released the same year as The General, Battling Butler is an adaptation of a musical play by Stanley Brightman and Austin Melford, which is in and of itself unusual for Keaton. Even more unusual is his character, a spoiled wealthy playboy named Alfred Butler who goes out in the wilderness to make a man out of himself. The only problem is he brings his trusty butler along for the trip, as well as a luxury tent with all the amenities. While he is on his luxury vacation in the woods, he meets a young woman and falls head over heels in love. The only problem is that her tough, mountain men brothers think he's too soft, so his butler convinces them that he is actually Battling Butler, the lightweight boxing champion of the world, leaving Butler to live up to his newfound alter-ego and convince them of his identity.

Buster Keaton and Mickey Walter in BATTLING BUTLER.
More of a melodrama than a comedy, Battling Butler is more subtle and understated than most of Keaton's work. It feels less like a Keaton film and more like a play from the era, and that's no coincidence. Both a departure in form and character for Keaton, Battling Butler is a charming work with some surprisingly dynamic boxing scenes that escehews Keaton's usual brand of physical comedy for something more subdued, even if it isn't always as successful. However, Keaton demonstrates a performance range here, putting aside his usual bumbling innocence for something more aloof and even serious.

Both films have been well preserved by the Library of Congress, so the blu-ray presentation is especially impressive. The extras will also be of special interest to both Keaton fans and students of the silent era, especially an hour long audio recording of Buster Keaton brainstorming a script proposal for the TV show, Wagon Train and excerpts from an unproduced screenplay for a Go West remake from 1947. Also included is an amusing Hal Roach short from 1923 also called Go West starring the Dippy Do Dads, a troupe of trained monkeys who take on human roles. The plot doesn't matter here as much as watching cute monkeys do funny, anthropomorphic things, which goes a long way in a silent short like this, and their skill is admittedly impressive.

Clearly, both Go West and Battling Butler are non-essential Keaton films, but Kino does an excellent job of presenting them nevertheless. Keaton fans will find plenty to enjoy here, but those new to his work would be better served starting with one of his more well known films. Keaton was one of the greatest comedians of the silent era, but even the masters can't hit a home run every time they go to bat.

GO WEST - ★★½ (out of four)
BATTLING BUTLER - ★★★ (out of four)

Go West/Battling Butler will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, September 27.

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