Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton) is the son of a millionaire, used to having everything done for him thanks to his mother doting over her precious little boy at every turn. His father is less impressed, and determined to toughen him up, so settles on a camping trip in the woods outside the city, surely that will do the business on his offspring and give him something to be proud of Alfred about? But once off in the wilderness, the heir is still being pampered thanks to the presence of his manservant (Snitz Edwards) who raises an elaborate tent more like a big top, and cooks him the kind of meals he would expect to have at home. However, something is about to happen that will change Alfred’s life, as he meets a mountain girl (Sally O'Neil) who he falls head over heels in love with...
But can he prove himself worthy of her love? Refreshingly, she is not after his fortune after all, so when his love is reciprocated it all goes surprisingly well for a Buster Keaton film: within about twenty minutes he has won the heart of the girl of his dreams, and looks set to have a very happy life with her. Ah, but then there is the inevitable spanner in the works, as her father and brother, both twice the size of her new husband, believe this Butler to be the up-and-coming boxer Alfred "Battling" Butler, and since he was only allowed to marry the girl (who doesn't get a name!) because they thought he was a he-man, he must sustain the subterfuge. This is more the fault of the valet, who wanted to keep the relationship sweet, but it will have dramatic consequences.
More dramatic than you might expect in a comedy, as while the greater part of the running time is typical Buster underdog humour, the grand finale is very serious indeed, and a genuine crowdpleaser in 1926 for the audiences who made this one of the biggest successes of Keaton's career. That is presumably why he picked it as his favourite of all his films, even over something like The General which was released the same year: demonstrably a better film, a classic for many, that effort was soundly rejected by the public at the time. This despite the amount of work that had gone into its amazing stunts, whereas Battling Butler was bereft of anything particularly spectacular, and far more straightforward than all of his other run of acknowledged favourites of the silent era.
Yet there was something undeniably pleasing in its simplicity, even in a plot that could have been cleared up within seconds had Butler been given the chance to admit the mistake that had turned into a ridiculous lie. It goes way too far as he is forced to pose as the real boxer and train for a fight against the Alabama Murderer (!) which he is unprepared for, to say the least, though you have to take that with a pinch of salt since Buster with his shirt off plainly was in tremendous shape and not the weakling the script asked for. Boxing as a source for jokes has been performed by anyone from Charlie Chaplin to Danny Kaye to Lou Costello, not to mention Bugs Bunny and Popeye, and Keaton mined solid laughs out of the set-up, especially in the ineptitude Alfred shows in the ring, but did it justify his high opinion of it? If it had been many a different silent comedian's work, it would be a triumph, but when you had seen his genius elsewhere, it was second tier. Nevertheless, Buster's charm was not to be underestimated.
[Eureka release this as part of their Buster Keaton: 3 Films Vol 2 box set - The Navigator, Seven Chances and Battling Butler - and here are the features:
• Limited Edition Hardbound Slipcase [3000 copies ONLY]
• 1080p presentations of all three films from the Cohen Film Collection's stunning 4K restorations, with musical scores composed and conducted by Robert Israel
• The Navigator - Audio commentary by silent film historians Robert Arkus and Yair Solan
• Seven Chances - Brand new audio commentary by film historian Bruce Lawton
• New and exclusive video essay by David Cairns covering all three films
• The Navigator - A short documentary on the making of the film and Keaton’s fascination with boats as sources of comedy, by film historian Bruce Lawton
• Buster Keaton & Irwin Allen audio interview from 1945 [6 mins]
• Buster Keaton & Arthur Friedman audio interview from 1956 [32 mins]
• Buster Keaton & Robert Franklin audio interview from 1958 [56 mins]
• Buster Keaton & Herbert Feinstein audio interview from 1960 [48 mins]
• Buster Keaton & Studs Terkel audio interview from 1960 [38 mins]
• What! No Spinach? (1926, dir. Harry Sweet) [19 mins] - Rarely seen comedy short by American actor / director Harry Sweet, that riffs on a number of elements from Seven Chances
• PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION [3000 copies ONLY] 60-PAGE perfect bound collector's book featuring new writing by Imogen Sara Smith and Philip Kemp; and a selection of archival writing and imagery.]