Sunday, November 26, 2017

What! No Beer?

Train Wreck Cinema

By Ed Garea

What! No Beer? (MGM, 1933) – Director: Edward Sedgwick. Writers: Carey Wilson (s/p), Robert E. Hopkins (story), Jack Cluett (add. dial.). Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Roscoe Ates, Phyliss Barry, John Miljan, Henry Armetta, Edward Brophy, Charles Dunbar & Charles Giblyn. B&W, 65 min.

A Question for the Night: How can a studio take one fair comic and one comic legend and make a film starring them that has absolutely no laughs whatsoever? 

Start with a lame script that fails to take advantage of any comic situations, then add a comic legend who is not only beyond caring anymore, but actually shows up for filming  three sheets to the wind. Add to this an overbearing co-star and mediocre direction. Thus we get What! No Beer? This is a mediocre Prohibition comedy about two dimwitted bootleggers and their ensuing problems with both the law and other bootleggers. It’s a promising premise loaded with comic possibilities, but the plot makes no sense, jumping from one situation to another in a haphazard manner in the belief that chaotic and loud is funny. It isn’t.

Though Keaton is the star, it’s Durante’s film, with Keaton just along for the ride. Durante is Jimmy Potts, a barber and active “wet” proponent. After learning that his state has voted to repeal Prohibition, Potts runs to his timid friend, taxidermist Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) for financial backing to start a brewery. 

For his part Elmer has been in love with Hortense (Barry), the free-spending moll of local bootlegger Butch Lorado (Miljan) ever since he saw her after mistakenly stumbling into a temperance meeting. (Of course, the bootleggers want Prohibition to remain in force, the better for their business.) After Potts tells him about his idea to buy a local brewery and make his own beer, Elmer backs his plan, for he wants to make money to impress Hortense. He agrees to invest his life savings in the brewery and become Jimmy’s partner. 

Not realizing that the repeal amendment requires state-by-state ratification, Elmer and Jimmy plow ahead with their plan and hire three hobos living in the brewery, Schultz (Ates), Tony (Armetta) and Mulligan (Dunbar), to help them prepare the brew as per Jimmy’s recipe. But before they can sell a single glass they are raided by the police. Jimmy and Elmer are arrested on charges of violating local prohibition laws and face six years each in jail. They are released after the police chemist discovers there is no alcohol in Jimmy’s beer. What they have done is to brew a batch of “near beer.” 

Jimmy, guilty about Elmer losing his savings, learns from Tony that Schultz used to be a brewmeister. Schultz had tried to tell Jimmy the night before that hops were necessary to make alcoholic beer, but because of his heavy stutter Jimmy could not understand him. Now determined to make good Elmer’s losses Jimmy decides to use Schultz’s recipe, but in order to assuage the nervous Elmer, Potts tells him that their operation will only make “near beer.”

While Jimmy gets busy Elmer is visited by bootlegger Spike Moran (Brophy), who along with Lorado, is concerned about a plan Elmer devised from reading books about salesmanship to undercut the competition’s prices. Elmer, totally oblivious to Spike’s real intentions, contracts with the bootlegger to deliver 1,000 barrels a day and accepts $10,000 as a down payment. Spike figures he can sell the brew at ten times its cost. Elmer then rushes off to the unemployment office and hires 50 new employees. When Jimmy learns what Elmer has done, he tells his partner the truth about the beer and hides the $10,000 Spike paid Elmer in his overcoat pocket. 

Meanwhile, Butch sends Hortense to visit Elmer and find out what she can about their operation. She pretends to faint and Elmer carries her into the office. There he manages to spill water all over her dress. She removes the dress and Elmer gives her Jimmy’s overcoat to wear. She takes her leave after learning about Elmer’s deal with Spike. When Jimmy returns and finds the coat missing, Elmer tells him that Hortense has it. Jimmy confesses he hid the money in it, but Elmer doesn’t mind, for she’s the girl for whom he wants to make a million.

Hortense tells Butch about Spike’s deal with Elmer. When the $10,000 falls out of the coat Lorado calls her a tramp and hits her, assuming the worst given her state of undress. Later she calls Elmer and he asks about the money. She lies and says she never saw it, to which Elmer responds by telling her to keep it and buy a Rolls. He asks her out for an afternoon at the park and she accepts.

After two of Spike’s men say that Lorado threatened to kill them if they attempted to deliver the beer, Elmer volunteers to deliver it himself. Lorado’s men plan to kill him at the top of a hill, but the truck’s tire blows out halfway up causing the barrels to fall off of the back and chase the gangsters away. Jimmy arrives, and Elmer mourns the loss of the near beer. Jimmy explains that it was real beer, and they’re involved with gangsters. Elmer, however, won't leave town, because he’s got a date with Hortense at the park.   

The next day, while Elmer is romancing Hortense in the park, Lorado kills Spike and takes over the brewery with his gang.

Meanwhile, the cops are planning to raid the brewery. Hortense finds out and slips Elmer a note about the raid. Elmer escapes in a barrel, grabs a blackboard, and drives away. He shows what he's written on the board to everyone on the street: Free Beer at the Brewery. The factory is mobbed, and by the time the police arrive, there’s no beer left and the gangsters are arrested.   
Cut to a senator speaking to Congress and telling the story of a town in his state where the gangsters were put out of business when the people stormed the brewery. He calls for an end to Prohibition. We see a headline, “Beer Legalized,” crowds cheer, grain is harvested, and beer is made and delivered. 

At Butt's Beer Garden, Elmer and Jimmy arrive in an open car. Jimmy offers free beer as the crowd mobs them for autographs and steals their clothes as well. Hortense asks if Elmer is hurt. He isn't. Jimmy, holds up a frosty glass of beer and turns to the camera: “It's your turn next folks. It won't be long now.” He blows off the foam and chugs some down.


What! No Beer? is a terrible movie. It was the coda to Buster Keaton’s tenure at MGM, a tenure that saw him eventually reduced to playing second fiddle to one-note comic Jimmy Durante. There are several scenes in the movie where it is quite noticeable that Keaton is drunk. His pratfalls, used in his pre-MGM days to heighten his other gags, literally fall flat in the movie. His love affair with Hortense is rushed. Again, in his pre-MGM days, Keaton would construct enough of a plot to explain his sudden passion. Now he’s only an actor, paid to read lines he didn’t write and to perform gags he didn’t invent. The writers never took into consideration any explanation of why Keaton falls in love at first sight. He just does and follows Hortense around like a lovesick puppy. We don’t get to see his ardor from her point-of-view nor that of her boyfriend, Lorado. 

Considered second only to Chaplin in his silent days, Keaton made the biggest mistake of his life when he signed with MGM. Financially, it was a nice deal for Keaton, with a salary of $3,000 a week, but everyone close to him warned Buster not to sign. Chaplin told him that “they’ll ruin you helping you.”

Alas, his friends were right as Keaton went almost overnight from an independent producer-director to studio employee. The first thing to go was his creative freedom. His working process leaned heavily on improvisation. He’d outline the story’s beginning and ending, with the middle being decided as production moved along. He was in control: figuring out what each scene needed in setting and situation as he went along. When he was satisfied, he would have the set built and choose his props and costumes for the cast. If a situation arose where a better gag could be used he would temporarily halt production while he adjusted the sets and props. 

Now that he worked for MGM, the studio told him what he could and couldn’t do. It is usually thought that sound killed Keaton’s creativity, but in actuality he wanted to make 1929’s Spite Marriage using the new sound technology. The studio turned him down; sound was new and expensive. It was saved for what the studio considered “important” projects,” such as dramas and musicals. Comedies weren’t seen as worth the time and expenditure. In 1929 Keaton was cast, along with most of the studio’s other stars (with the exception of Garbo) in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a variety format talkie showcasing the fact that MGM’s stars could talk. But not Keaton. He performed a silent comic dance and later appeared in an ensemble singalong of “Singin’ in the Rain.” But as the camera cuts to Keaton, his mouth is shut, looking confused and at sea as the others keep singing. It was a portent of things to come.

His first sound film at MGM, Free and Easy (1930) was followed by a succession of films of lesser quality as Keaton reacted to his new employees status with disinterest. At the same time he was also facing an acrimonious and expensive divorce from Natalie Talmadge. He began drinking heavily and it affected his work. The studio lost confidence in Keaton’s ability to carry a film, so in 1932 he was teamed with loudmouth comic Jimmy Durante in The Passionate Plumber, the first of three films they would make together. Things went from bad to worse as Keaton ended up playing second fiddle to Durante. He reacted to his situation by stepping up his drinking habit, which disrupted entire production schedules due to hangovers and alcoholic blackouts. He also began to vocalize his objections to his increasingly demeaning roles in the films with Durante. 

MGM had another film planned for the duo, called Buddies, and they were slated to co-star with Jackie Cooper. But Keaton was now more of a liability to the studio than an asset, despite his continuing popularity. After What! No Beer? MGM decided to cut its losses and gave Keaton the gate despite the fact that his films were very profitable at the box office.     

In 1934, Keaton accepted an offer to star in an independent film in France, Le Roi des Champs-Élysées. From 1934-37 he also starred in a series of two-reelers for Educational films, usually under the direction of Charles Lamont or Mack Sennett. He also starred in a 1936 English film called The Invader (released in America as An Old Spanish Custom).

Returning to America he continued working for Educational Films. MGM also hired him as a gagman. Among the comics he worked with was Harpo Marx. In 1939 Columbia hired him to star in 10 two-reel comedies, under directors Del Lord and Jules White, who also helmed the Three Stooges shorts at the same studio. His first short for the studio was Pest from the West, a shorter, tighter remake of The Invader, directed by Lord. However, the shorts rapidly declined in quality, and after the final short, She's Oil Mine (1941), Keaton swore he would never again “make another crummy two-reeler.” The Columbia entries would be his final starring series for any movie studio.     

With his personal life stabilizing after his 1940 marriage to Eleanor Norris, Keaton played character roles in both "A" and "B" features. Critics rediscovered him in 1949 and producers occasionally hired him for bigger "prestige" pictures, with cameos in such major productions as In the Good Old SummertimeSunset Boulevard (1950), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). He had a more substantial role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). He also appeared in a poignant comedy routine about two inept stage musicians in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight (1952).  With the exception of a 1922 publicity film called Seeing StarsLimelight marked the only occasion in which the Chaplin and Keaton would ever appear together on film.     

In the ‘50s he began doing guest shots on television, appearing on such shows as Rheingold TheatreThe Eddie Cantor Comedy TheaterScreen Directors Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre , Playhouse 90, Route 66, Burke’s Law and The Donna Reed Show. In 1961 he won critical notice when he starred in a Twilight Zone episode called "Once Upon a Time.” Including both silent and sound sequences, Keaton played Mulligan, a time traveler who traveled from 1890 to 1960 and back by means of a special helmet. He also guested in a hilarious episode of Candid Camera as a man for whom everything goes wrong. In addition to television series, Keaton also found steady work in TV commercials. He filmed a popular series of silent ads for Simon Pure Beer reviving some of the gags from his silent film days.     

Beginning in 1964, Keaton began working for American International Pictures, appearing in Pajama Party (1964), Beach Blanket BingoHow to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sergeant Dead Head (1965). Not only was he allowed to write and perform his own gags, he also did a little physical comedy, not bad for a 70-year old man.     

In a short called The Railrodder (1965) for the National Film Board of Canada, he wore his traditional porkpie hat and traveled from one end of Canada to the other on a motorized handcar, performing gags similar to those in films he madden his silent films. The film is notable for being Keaton's last silent screen performance and was made in tandem with a behind-the-scenes documentary about his life and times, called Buster Keaton Rides Again.    

Keaton died of lung cancer on February 1, 1966, in Woodland Hills, California, at the age of 70. Though he was diagnosed with the terminal illness in January 1966, he was never informed of his condition, believing it to be bronchitis.

1 comment:

  1. Good review of Keaton's sound career. However, I am not sure that MGM was as much to blame for Keaton's downward spiral as the standard story asserts. They certainly had a big financial stake his success. The problem was that the slapstick that Keaton had mastered in silent films simply could not work for a sound feature film, or at least a series of feature films. Even Chaplin only got away with it twice - "City Lights" and "Modern Times". Slapstick continued in 20 minute shorts (Our Gang, Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Thelma Todd/Zazu Pitts/Patsy Kelly) and in segments of feature films, but it could not be sustained any longer for a whole film and hold the audience's interest.

    Teaming Keaton with a new and young verbal comedian like Jimmy Durante was not a bad idea at all. There could have been a lot of comic interplay between the aggressive and brash Durante and the more introspective Keaton. We can see a little of what could have been in their best movie "Speak Easily." There are a few brief moments where the uneducated Durante and Keaton (playing a college Professor) really do establish a potentially funny relationship. Unfortunately the film doesn't build very much on it, and by the end, they might as well be playing in different movies.

    There are actually about 15 minutes in the middle of the movie when Keaton does a couple of scenes with Thelma Todd that we see what might have been a far more successful route for Keaton in sound films. Todd is sexy and terrific as a temperamental stage actress and gold-digger. She invites Keaton to her apartment to try and get him to pay for the apartment and/or marry her. These scenes look entirely improvised by her and Keaton. They get drunk together and she's starts trying to have sex with him, only they're both too drunk. There's some great physical slapstick between them. |

    At one point Keaton says, "I don't understand you...I don't understand you" On one level it can be taken as the Todd character trying to seduce him, and Keaton not knowing what she's doing, or it might mean that she's so drunk that he doesn't understand her words. One also suspects that he was talking to the director and saying that he didn't understand the scene or maybe it was him talking to MGM and saying he didn't understand sound films.
    In any case I think there was a real missed opportunity here. Todd's heat and Keaton's cool, Todd's drop dead smile and Keaton's stoneface were perfect for each other. In a better, alternative world, I imagine Keaton and Todd going on to make a series of pictures together, becoming the Astaire and Rogers of comedy.
    Besides this scene, "His scene in "Limelight" and the wonderful Twilight Zone episode, I think his brief scenes in his last film "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" should also be mentioned as a highlight of Keaton's sound career. He is seen briefly about five or six times in the movie, but he really has only one scene with Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford. It is three or four minutes of pure hilarity. It was a good movie to end his career on.