After Buster Keaton completed his run of 19 two-reel shorts produced between 1920 and 1923, which I reviewed a few months ago, he moved on to longer films, including “Go West” and “Battling Butler,” which Kino has released in a new two-disc set featuring newly mastered film elements and a smattering of bonus features.
In “Go West,” Keaton plays a man known only as Friendless, a slapstick version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Friendless decides to seek his fortune in the western United States, which was still an adventurous, throw-caution-to-the-wind idea in the early 20th century, and eventually ends up working on a cattle ranch.
Friendless struggles to fit in with the tough cowboys around him, eventually befriending a cow and engaging in a little flirting with the only woman there. The story consists mostly of excuses to put Keaton in a series of predicaments until a crisis emerges: the ranch owner needs to get his cattle to the stockyards in Los Angeles but others are determined to stop the cattle run and bring him financial ruin. The last fourth of the story consists of Friendless herding the steers through the streets of LA, with predictable results, before he provokes a wild stampede that saves the day and brings the cattle in just in time.
“Battling Butler” puts Keaton in a very different role as Alfred Butler, a pampered rich kid sent by his father on a hunting trip. “Maybe it will make a man out of you if you have to take care of yourself for a while,” his father declares. Alfred’s idea of roughing it involves all the luxuries he has grown used to, including the constant help of his butler, but when he meets and falls in love with a mountain girl, his butler tells the girl’s father that he’s a boxer to impress him. Unfortunately, proving he’s a boxer means Alfred has to fight the “Alabama Murderer” in a title bout.
This film is one of Keaton’s few in which the story came from a previous source; in this case, it was a successful stage play that ran on Broadway from 1923 to 1924. The tale, particularly its third act, may feel like a warmed-over sitcom plot to modern audiences, but, as with all of Keaton’s films, there’s always plenty of joy to be found in watching “Stone Face” do his thing.
“Go West” and “Battling Butler” aren’t major Keaton works, but given their place just before “The General” in his filmography, they’re useful to see his artistic progression. “Battling Butler” is a more refined tale, one that sets up its central conflict early and plays it through the climax, whereas “Go West” feels like a short that was padded out because producer Joseph Schenck felt it needed another reel or two.
The films’ status in Keaton’s career also explains the fairly paltry bonus features found on these discs. The first platter serves up a 12-minute 1923 version of “Go West” filmed by Hal Roach and starring monkeys, along with an hour-long meeting Buster Keaton took in 1958 to talk about script ideas for the show “Wagon Train” and a photo gallery from the film. The meeting is audio-only, but it’s a fascinating artifact for Keaton fans.
The “Battling Butler” disc also offers up something that never happened: pages from Keaton’s planned 1947 remake of the film. You also get photos from the stage play and from the film.