|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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Grand Old Movies · September 3, 2013 at 6:44 am
Sadly, I agree with your assessment of this movie. I saw this film once and I can honestly say this is one Keaton film I never want to see again.
Danny · September 3, 2013 at 2:36 pm
Easily, easily the worst.
Jennifer · September 4, 2013 at 6:59 pm
I saw that it was on Warner Archive Instant, but the Keaton biography I read recently panned it, too, and your review confirms my plans to skip this one! Thanks for suffering through it so the rest of us won’t have to.
Danny · September 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm
Thanks Jennifer! In retrospect, I may have been better off just posting “SAVE YOURSELVES” than a full review.
justjack · September 5, 2013 at 12:15 pm
The 3 Stooges also pulled that running-from-the-beer-kegs routine sometime after this.
Danny · September 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm
That doesn’t surprise me; a lot of slapstick routines kept getting ‘borrowed’ from each other. If the Stooges were anywhere around MGM at the time, Buster may have even been the one to suggest it!
nitrateglow · April 7, 2015 at 9:31 pm
As a hardcore Keaton fan, this movie is depressing to watch. Nothing like seeing your favorite filmmaker at rock bottom in an unfunny, obnoxious monstrosity. 🙁
Danny · April 14, 2015 at 9:14 am
My wife loves Buster Keaton. I will not show her this movie.
tovangar Toutvabien · January 9, 2016 at 2:44 am
Anyone know the location of the rampaging beer barrels scene (shown in the GIF)?
Danny · February 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm
Wish I did, man. Sorry.
Chris · September 20, 2017 at 12:16 pm
That’s exactly the question that led me here today Tovangar.
David Leopold · August 29, 2017 at 3:32 am
The best thing about this film is that Hirschfeld did the poster art. You can see it here: http://www.alhirschfeldfoundation.org/search?keywords=WHAT%21%20NO%20BEER
Chris · September 20, 2017 at 12:23 pm
I agree, the movie was pretty dull; and a sad tribute to Keaton’s demise. The only memorable parts for me were the barrels rolling down the hill – which I like for the old views of life at the time – and when Durant’s character informs Keaton’s that, “Moran’s a gangster. Lorado’s a gangster. You’re a gangster. I’m a gangster. WE’RE ALL GANGSTERS!”
I’m still trying to figure out where the barrels down the hill scene was shot.
Chris · September 24, 2017 at 9:08 pm
Well, a few days after asking where the barrel scene was filmed I find this in my inbox:
The scene was filmed at N. Mountain View Avenue and the 2000 block of Court Street in Los Angeles. Anybody interested in old film locations will REALLY enjoy John Bengtson’s “Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)” on WordPress.
Nick · May 15, 2019 at 11:51 am
Late to the party here, but I checked out the corner you mention on Google Street View, and it looks like that’s definitely the place. One of the houses on Court St. is still there!
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