|Elmer J. Butts …
|Jimmy Potts …
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- “Oh, my dress is soaking! Now I have to take it off.” followed by a woman taking off her dress. Naturally.
- Elmer J. Butts hides his money in the animals he has in his taxidermy. He retrieves the coins from one goose by shaking it and we get to see the currency come flying out of its rear end.
What – No Beer?: I’m Afraid There Is
Elmer J. Butts. I want this to sink in slowly. This is the name of the character assigned to Buster Keaton for his third picture with Jimmy Durante at MGM, and represents a creative nadir for the silent screen comedy legend and for, perhaps, the entirety of filmed comedy.
The worst part about this name, besides the fact that the name is frickin’ “Elmer J. Butts”, is that there are no jokes about it in the film. That may sound like a relief to you, but if you’ve seen What – No Beer?, as dumb as a gag would have been to bring up something like Butts’ beautiful buttes, it would still be a vast improvement on the other material entombed within.
What – No Beer? is a joyless exercise, an array of comic situations that require an orchestra of comedic talent but are instead played via off-key bagpipes. A hapless taxidermist falls in love with a mobster’s girlfriend, and unwisely loans his fast talking pal money to buy a brewery to welcome in the end of Prohibition. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite ended yet, and the two must get their brew past the cynical cops and profit hungry bootleggers.
The fast talking friend is Jimmy Potts, played by Jimmy Durante. I’ve noted before my distaste for his stylings (the two previous Keaton/Durante collaborations are good in spite of the costar), and this film furthers my belief that Durante is a one note comic, a loudmouth that mistakes manic energy for comic energy. Every moment he has is loud and fast, but it lacks any sense of momentum; speed for the sake of speed ain’t funny. He may be the only actor on earth where any given impersonation of his mannerisms are actually funnier than the real deal.
Not that perennial legend Keaton gets off any better here. With Durante creating a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing, Keaton’s Butts never rises above the level of morose punching bag. A lot of Keaton’s comedy came from being a sap pursuing a woman on a pedestal, but the film undermines this by putting Keaton after a woman he hardly knows and whose lack of charms is overwhelming. Rather than a romantic, he’s a blithering idiot, in love with a dink.
And, hey, that would be fine if the blather was better, but Keaton does the physical comedy half of the equation– an array of unimpressive but skillful pratfalls, mixed with some very sloppy acting work– and Durante drops energetic but lame quips at a breakneck speed. In spite of both of their efforts, desperation coats every frame of the film.
Take one extended scene where Jimmy and Elmer try to kick start their brewery, and hire a trio of vagrants to help them. When the distillery begins to overflow, all run around trying to bottle the beer in anything available. Everyone is covered in foam! Eventually, Buster is missing because there is so much foam! They find him! … ha ha!
Anticlimax is killer in a comedy. It stings even more when the film’s literal climax, which involves having the entire town drink the evidence of the brewery before a police raid, is a clever idea in and of itself. But simply having a clever idea is the most that’s made of any joke in the film!
The end has Jimmy Durante turn to the camera with a big glass of beer, and cheer to the audience, “It’s your turn next folks! It won’t be long now!” As a document of the dying days of Prohibition, as a comedy, as a milestone in the career in one of the greatest comedians ever captured on film… this movie sucks.
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- Eagle eyed viewers may catch some stock footage later in the film that was also used in King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd (1928).
- Speaking of stealing from the silents, Keaton is chased down the hill by a bevy of beer barrels here in much the same manner that rocks chased after him in Seven Chances (1925). Also during this sequence, you may catch a large billboard for another MGM film that had come out a few months earlier, Grand Hotel. Case in point:
- Doctor Macro has some nice publicity shots from this one, as well as some background.
- TCM delves even further into the background of the film. This was the third pairing of Keaton and Durante, and all three films were sizable box office successes (!). However, Keaton’s alcoholism (at least a bottle of the hard stuff a day) made him a huge liability on the production, including a week where he got married during a blackout and honeymooned in Mexico. Despite the lucrative Durante/Keaton team they had, MGM fired Keaton after the movie. It was his last starring role in a feature film at an American studio.
- For a rundown of Keaton’s life and further work after this movie, A Trip Down Memory Lane sums it up nicely.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon and Warner Archive, and can be rented from Classicflix. Also, as of this writing, it’s showing on Warner Archive Instant.
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