A love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.A love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.A love-struck weakling must pretend to be boxer in order to gain respect from the family of the girl he loves.
It definitely takes a while to get up to speed (at the start, I took the father to be a doctor giving his sickly son only three months to live!) and for the initial reel or so it depends largely on a single extended gag -- the elegant fop's complete unsuitability for an outdoor environment. Alfred's elaborate al-fresco living arrangements echo Keaton's trademark fascination with complicated contrivances, and there's one very typical bit of misdirection where we wait for the shotgun's recoil to knock Alfred backwards into the water, only for a somewhat different turn of events to prove his downfall; but this film doesn't come properly to life until its hero engages our sympathy as well as being a walking joke. In "The General", we engage with Johnnie Gray almost immediately -- in "Battling Butler", Alfred remained a cipher for me until the moment when he nervously rehearses "Beatrice Faircatch"'s newspaper advice on making a proposal, with such an earnest air: it's funny, but it's also touching, and it's no coincidence that it is with his subsequent first steps towards standing on his own two feet -- tearing up and throwing aside the useless newspaper column -- that Alfred Butler may finally be said to have progressed beyond a simple one-dimensional character, and the film can really begin.
From here on the picture becomes a Keaton classic, sweeping the hapless hero further and further from the cushioned normality of his life with a series of escalating and plausible coincidences. Ultimately the worm will turn, of course -- but not in the time and manner that we are expecting. And Keaton acts here not just with that famous face but with every line of his whole body: triumph, exhaustion, despair, apprehension, indignation, timidity, pugnacity... and finally, in the last scene, sublime confidence in his own skin, modelling a costume so incongruous that only Buster Keaton could carry it off with such genuine elegance!
The scenes of Alfred's ordeal are hilarious and moving by degrees -- it's almost impossible to analyse Keaton's appeal. 'Sweet' is quite definitely the wrong word, as is 'lovable': Buster is no Little Tramp. 'Bittersweet' might be closer to the mark... or 'poignant'; the metaphor of the man who gets knocked down but keeps on trying has never been more apt. There is a brief vivid moment when Alfred, bewildered and worn out, turns his face aside into the arms of his second with such a hopeless little air that instead of a laugh, it raised a murmur of pity from the auditorium. But Keaton never allows himself to milk the audience for sympathy -- the best of his films may mingle laughter through tears, but he never falls into the trap of sentimentality.
I'm not sure if this is among the best of Keaton's films... but it's certainly one of those I've ultimately enjoyed the most so far. I've changed my mind: I'll give it a 9 after all, and say I'm dropping a mark down instead from a 10! :-)
- Igenlode Wordsmith
- Feb 23, 2006