January 17, 2019
What! No Beer? – U.S., 1933
The cynic in me is convinced that Edward Sedgwick’s instructions to the stars of his 1933 film What! No Beer? were, “Buster, act shy and uncomfortable, and Jimmy, be loud and obnoxious,” in other words, to play the same roles they’d played in countless other films. And this makes sense in a way. After all, What! No Beer? is one of Sedgwick’s lazier films – it can’t even be bothered to give its stars original names. Keaton plays another character named Elmer, while Jimmy plays, who else, his best friend, Jimmy. A curious choice, really. Elmer, like so many of Keaton’s characters is awkward, reserved, and physically clumsy; Jimmy is boisterous, vigorous, and laughter-prone. In fact, he’s probably never made a joke that he didn’t find hilarious. The pairing made sense in Speak Easily, in which Jimmy was a member of the performance troupe that Keaton’s character decided to back financially. Here, we’re asked to accept them as life-long friends, but I have a feeling that two people with such contrasting personalities would have drifted apart long ago.
The film, a comedy without any real laughs, begins on the eve of an election in 1933 in which every state appears to be going to the ballot box to vote either dry or wet. When it’s a clean sweep for wet, Jimmy comes up with the idea of being the first to re-open a bar. So, he and Elmer spend all of Elmer’s life savings on a run-down brewery and open it the following day. There’s only one problem: Prohibition hasn’t officially ended yet. This makes them bootleggers and completion to the local gangsters who prospered during the years of the great dry experiment.
There’s comic potential in the scenario. Jimmy and Elmer could actually get into their new roles as criminals doing something that is on the verge is being legal. They could take on new personalities, bumble and stumble while trying to act the part of characters they would likely only know through movies and stereotypes, all the while getting deeper and deeper into a criminal world that they have no clue how to maneuver in. Alas, instead we get Durante and Keaton playing variations of the same characters we’ve seen them play countless times. It’s rare that I assume I know what was going on in an actor’s mind when he made a film, but it hard not to look at Keaton in this film and not see a disappointed actor. Here he is playing the same role he’s played numerous times before in service of a script that is undeserving of him. I would go so far as to say that neither Segwick not screenwriter Carey Wilson knew what to do with Keaton. Case in point, late in the film Keaton is shown running away from a truckful of barrels of beer which have gotten loose. The old Keaton, the one that had creative control and wasn’t shy about taking risks physically, would have used the scene as an opportunity to dazzle audiences with his athletic prowess and comic timing. Here, he just finds a place to take shelter and waits for the chaos to subside. Nothing really to see there. (Wikipedia offers a more depressing explanation for Keaton's demeanor. You can read it here)
The best Buster Keaton films combine slapstick comedy with romantic sensibility. In them, Keaton is often on a mission to marry the woman he loves, and we, through his devotion and determination, root him on in this pursuit. What! No Beer? denies Keaton much of the slapstick that made him famous. Instead, he’s reduced to just looking uncomfortable in compromising positions and straining to make scenes that were past their expiration date even in 1933 humorous. What’s worse, like so many of his later films, he’s saddled with a romance that seems thrown together without much thought. For example, it’s one thing for a character to say I hate my abusive gangster boyfriend; it’s quite another to say Now I’ll marry the awkward guy I just met. The only intriguing thing about the scenes involving Elmer and the woman he loves, played by Phyllis Barry, is a risqué bit in which she is trying to seduce him and he acts as if he’s completely oblivious to her double entendres. We’ve seen moments like this before, but there’s a boldness to the seduction that’s new for a Buster Keaton film. The problem is that Keaton and Barry have so little screen time together that they have no opportunity to develop any genuine chemistry, and there’s a coldness to their scenes that is unusual for a Keaton film, at least for early Keaton ones.
What! No Beer? was the last film that Keaton made for Metro Goldwyn-Meyer, and if I’m honest, that studio, with the exception of 1928’s The Cameraman, never used Keaton to his strength. Perhaps it was inevitable. Few slapstick comedians from the silent era successfully made the transition to talking films, and the ones that did often saw their creativity curtailed. It is clear that Keaton had very little, if any, control over what he did in What! No Beer? and that those who did, did not have the sense to let Keaton play against type or to at least give him enough scenes with Barry to make their eventual love more realistic. Instead, we get a rushed studio product, the equivalent of the greatest hits albums that record companies force bands to release to get out of their contacts. At least with those album, you get something that fans can use to discover a band later on; What! No Beer? gives us no greatest hits, no classic scenes to buzz about online, and no moments of sheer romantic brilliance or slapstick insanity. Instead, we get a movie that I can’t imagine inspiring people to look back at Keaton’s earlier work. It’s more likely to make people wonder what all the fuss surrounding Keaton was about, and this is a genuine shame. (on DVD from WB’s Archive Collection)