Sunday, October 10, 2010

Time capsule comedy! What! No Beer?

What! No Beer? 1933. B&W, MGM, 70 minutes. Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Starring Buster Keaton as Elmer J. Butts, Jimmy Durante as Jimmy Potts, Phyllis Barry as Hortense, Edward Brophy as Spike Moran and Charles Giblyn as Chief. Schlock-Meter rating: Four stars out of 10 stars.

What! No Beer? is a curio, a relic from the past. The plot of the mostly unfunny comedy deals with prohibition and efforts to repeal it, an issue which dominated headlines nearly 70 years ago. It was a box office winner due to its stars, Keaton and Durante, but is generally regarded as one of the unfunniest comedies of the 1930s. It was the pair's last film together. Keaton's drinking problem and absences from the set caused the studio to fire him even before the film was released. It was the start of a spiral into film oblivion for Keaton, and his career did not surge again until television began to thrive two decades later.

The plot: Jimmy Potts (Durante) is a barber and Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) is a luckless businessman. Potts, incorrectly thinking prohibition has been repealed, convinces Butts to invest his money in a long-closed brewery. The stone-faced Butts moons over a pretty gangster moll named Hortense (Barry). He wants to be a millionaire so he can win her love. Seeing no other way to earn the million bucks, he agrees to get into the beer business. Police quickly raid the brewery and arrest the pair, but discover there's no alcohol in the brew. Later, a hobo at the deserted plant confesses he was once a great brewer and real beer is made, which is a big hit. Soon the police and the mob muscle in on Potts and Butts.

The film is as unfunny as it sounds. Durante, in particular, is just pathetic. He bellows and brays and cracks unfunny jokes. It's painful to watch him flop on the screen. Although he is clearly half-bagged in many of the scenes, the best part of the film is comic great Keaton. His talent for physical comedy is on display in several scenes, and his naivete and trusting demeanor leads to misunderstandings that bring laughs, particularly a scene where gangsters, sent to muscle him, interpret his bland replies as extreme coolness under pressure, and leave impressed. What! No Beer? is not a good movie, but it's worth a rental to see an early sound Keaton offering.

-- Doug Gibson

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