Battling Butler (Buster Keaton / U.S., 1926):

Pugilism and Freud. Alfred Butler (Buster Keaton) is a dandy sent to the woods by the exasperated father, who hopes roughing it up will make a man out of him. He recreates his swanky cocoon in the wild, complete with bear rug, newspaper delivery, and diligent valet (Snitz Edwards); he grabs a shotgun and walks obliviously past quail, deer and coyote, the only thing he manages to shoot is the handkerchief of a mountain tomboy (Sally O'Neill), whose pluck beguiles him. He decides to marry her ("Arrange it," he tells the valet), but her brawny father and brother refuse to allow any "jellyfish" into their family. Edwards remembers that his pampered boss shares his name with a prizefighter (Francis McDonald), and the ruse starts -- Alfred weds his sweetheart but is mistaken for "Battling Butler," who has a showdown with a bulldozer nicknamed "The Alabama Murderer." Keaton's lapidated technique immaculately abstracts both comedy (a long-take gag with a canoe and a mysterious dunking duck served Tati and Elmer Fudd) and romance ("Do you think you could learn to love me?" "I have."), though the most hypnotic manifestations of what Sarris called the artist's "raging unconscious" are reserved for the ring. The docile hero needs to turn himself into a "bloodthirsty beast," yet he's nearly asphyxiated by the ropes as the steps into the ring; Keaton stages the boxing matches not as Chaplin's balletic dodgefests but as protracted pummelings, trailing spiritual growth through physical conflict up to the climactic locker-room collision with his namesake, an astonishing expurgation of the id. Two glorious reverse tracking shots tell the tale -- Keaton the sham surrounded by a welcoming parade (cf. Hail the Conquering Hero), then Keaton the battered true champ decked only in top hat, trunks and boxing gloves, strolling with his beloved down a bustling vérité boulevard. With Tom Wilson, Mary O'Brien, Walter James, and Budd Fine. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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