1933, MGM, 66 minutes, Buster Keaton as Elmer J. Butts, Jimmy Durante as Jimmy Potts, Phyllis Barry as Hortense, Edward Brophy as Spike Moran, Roscoe Ates as Schultz and Charles Giblyn as Chief. Schlock-Meter rating: Six stars out of 10 stars.
By Doug Gibson
What -- No Beer? is a curio, a relic from the past. The plot of the comedy deals with prohibition and efforts to repeal it, an issue which dominated headlines more than 80 years ago. It was a box office winner due to its stars, Keaton and Durante, but is generally regarded as a mediocre comedy 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 really 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 Potts, incorrectly thinking prohibition has been repealed, convinces Butts to invest his money in a long-closed brewery.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, they learn that a stuttering tramp at the deserted plant (Ates) 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.
There is a sexy pre-code scene in which lovestruck Keaton splashes sexy Barry's dress with water and she disrobes down to sheer underwear while the comic Elmer tries to avoid seeing what the audience is enjoying. The first time I saw this film Durante's obnoxious and loud character annoyed me but it does improve on repeat viewings and one is able to ignore Durante's excess and enjoy the time-capsule period and the final major comedy feature that Keaton starred in. His physical prowess is evident despite the boozing.
Durante bellows and brays and cracks many unfunny jokes. Although he is clearly half-bagged in many of the scenes, one can still admire 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 great movie, but it's worth a rental to see an early sound Keaton offering.