Buster Keaton, Prohibition and WHAT! NO BEER? (1933)

It’s late 1932 and the repeal of prohibition is looming.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made the ban on alcohol a central issue in his campaign and within a year’s time Americans – who were increasingly for repeal – would be able to manufacture and purchase alcohol legally.  Amidst the fervor for beer Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) released what it claimed to be the first movie to center on the popular topic, Edward Sedgwick’s WHAT! NO BEER?

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One could say that while prohibition with regards to alcohol was on the minds of the masses, Buster Keaton was struggling through a prohibition of his own – an artistic one.

“In 1928, I made the worst mistake of my career. Against my better judgment I let Joe Schenck talk me into giving up my own studio to make pictures at the booming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City. ”

WHAT! NO BEER? was shot between December 17, 1932 and January 28, 1933 in the midst of difficult times for Buster Keaton.  The comic’s personal life was in shambles in the early 1930s.  Without getting into gory details Keaton’s wife of twelve years, Natalie Talmadge divorced him taking with her the couple’s two sons.  Keaton was drinking excessively and adding fuel to the fire was his professional disappointment that resulted from his association with MGM.

When Buster Keaton signed with MGM in 1928 he was at the height of his popularity.  A mere five years later he was virtually unemployable.  Unlike other silent stars, Buster Keaton had made a successful transition to talking pictures, but the loss of control over his own work as a player at the studio of studios proved a hard pill to swallow.  Keaton was used to working independently, without having to adhere to anyone else’s rules.  Complete creative freedom had made him one of the greatest comics in the world.  Now he was working within MGM’s strict studio-system guidelines, which meant his work was being supervised, his every move planned and most of his stunts performed by doubles and “Stunt doubles don’t get laughs.”

To be fair, MGM’s success – and we all know they had plenty of it – was based on control.  The fact that Buster Keaton’s creativity was stifled by the brass at the studio was par for the course although that didn’t make it any easier on him.  Making matters even worse, however, was the fact that the roles Keaton was cast in while at MGM were mostly fools or idiots, mundane parts that rarely showcased his talent.  By his own admission Keaton would argue with MGM brass about not putting dialogue in movies where it wasn’t needed.  “They went for the constant verbal jokes,” he’d later say.  For the movie veteran each new picture proved more and more difficult to make than the previous.  Unfortunately for Keaton, however, MGM had no reason to even consider changing the formula of these movies because they were making money.

WHAT! NO BEER?, Buster Keaton’s last movie at MGM, shows definite signs of all of the wear and tear that resulted from the comic’s personal and professional difficulties, which is unfortunate given the premise has so much promise.  Not only does Buster play the standard (by this point) dim-witted fool, but MGM also teams him with Jimmy Durante for a third time.  And – again – while all three Keaton/Durante collaborations all directed by Edward Sedgwick – THE PASSIONATE PLUMBER, SPEAK EASILY and WHAT! NO BEER? – were hits at the box office these two are not a creative match made in heaven.  More on that in a bit.

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WHAT! NO BEER? tells the story of barber Jimmy Potts (Jimmy Durante) who wants to capitalize on the looming repeal of prohibition.  Watching the news closely and being a strong proponent of the “I’m Wet” Campaign, meaning he wants prohibition over and done with Potts has a brain storm – he’ll be the first to make beer and a fortune.

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Potts shares the details of his get-rich scheme with his friend, taxidermist Elmer J. Butts (Keaton).  During the exchange Jimmy Potts finds out Butts has $10,000 stashed away in his stuffed animals.  Potts convinces Butts to invest the money in a brewery.

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Elmer Butts agrees to go along with Potts’ plan in hopes of making a million dollars so he can impress Hortense, the object of his infatuation.  Butts is unaware that Hortense (Phyllis Barryis the girlfriend of gangster Butch Laredo (John Miljan).  

Jimmy Potts and Elmer J. Butts embark on beer-making escapes, which include employing a staff of homeless men, exploding bottles and lots of foam.  Once the mishaps at the brewery are over and done with Potts and Butts think they’ve got beer and set off to make a profit, but the police quickly learn of the duo’s actions and arrest the two for illegally selling and manufacturing alcohol.  Except, it turns out that what the two managed to concoct was nothing more inebriating (is that a word?) than brown dishwater.

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Despite the set-back, however, Potts and Butts give it another shot.  This time with success thanks to one of the workers they hire who reveals he’s a master brewer.  Jimmy Potts feels bad about Butts having lost his life savings in the endeavor and vows to make his friend’s money back.  Butts is not the type to look for trouble, however, and doesn’t want anything to do with an illegal brewery so Potts lies to him and tells him that what they’re making is “Near beer” while actually making the real thing.  Well, the success of the brewery results in subsequent near run-ins with the police and local hoodlums who want to encroach on their territory for a piece of the action.  That’s when Elmer Butts gets to know Hortense – literally – in a pre-code scene during which she disrobes after Butts spills water on her.

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Hortense is playing damsel in distress to some degree, feeding Elmer Butts’ infatuation, but in truth she was sent by tough-guy Laredo to gather details about the brewery.

And so it continues. The somewhat enjoyable pre-code scene aside I wish I could follow with “And hilarity ensures,” but WHAT! NO BEER? never gets there.  There are a few chuckles along the way thanks to Durante’s famous butchering of the English language and a few worthy moments during which Keaton gets to be physical.  While WHAT! NO BEER? is not the painfully awful movie I’d read about, it has its troubles and it is a disappointment.

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Being that this is the first movie I’ve seen of Keaton’s starring talkies I wanted to be sure to give it an honest shot.  In other words, not compare it to his silent masterpieces – so I watched it twice.  Unfortunately, my first impression remains true.  Keaton is not awful in WHAT! NO BEER? by any means, in fact he’s charming in a few instances.  But I have to admit some scenes are actually difficult to watch.  The fact that Buster’s not as lithe as we may be used to is fine, but in this case he is oft sluggish and slurs his words.  Clearly his heart was not in the work – or so it seems to me.

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And now to the Keaton/Durante teaming – none of the difficulties in WHAT! NO BEER? are improved by this pairing.  Buster Keaton is especially ill-served with the vociferous Durante rendering him little more than a mere peripheral player too often for my liking.  Jimmy’s exuberant loudness makes Buster’s laborious delivery even more prominent.  I mean, who talks more and/or louder than Jimmy Durante?  It just doesn’t work – the contrast between the two is not a good thing.

Making matters even worse, all points to the fact that MGM was touting relative new-comer Durante and moving Keaton aside even in promoting the movies.  While WHAT! NO BEER? shows the two billed side-by-side…

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…the studio seemed ready to adjust promotions to feature Jimmy Durante a lot more prominently by the film’s opening on February 10, 1933.  Reportedly MGM head Louis B. Mayer had delivered the letter firing Buster Keaton on February 2 of that year, despite everything pointing to another hit.  By the way, while it’s easy to label Mayer and his studio as the “bad guys” it’s only fair to remember MGM was a business and all points to the fact the increasingly hung over Buster Keaton was unreliable.

In any case – WHAT! NO BEER? delivered as expected, doing great business at the box office.  This success was no doubt in part due to MGM taking full advantage of the prohibition news across the country.  You can see from the ads included here that the upcoming passage of the 21st amendment (ratified in December of 1933) was front and center.   Part of the campaign for WHAT! NO BEER? included movie theaters across the country setting up bars where “real beer” was sold.  It’s no surprise movie audiences responded by showing up.

Sadly, while MGM enjoyed another hit Buster Keaton reaped no rewards.  His career was over.  For the time being in any case because to his credit Keaton bounced back both personally and professionally.  He married Eleanor Norton in 1940 and the two enjoyed a happy marriage until Buster’s death in 1966.  On the professional front Keaton worked as a gag writer, influencing the work of many who graced screens small and large for generations.  He would also return to MGM years later as a supporting player and had steady work on Television for years.

In the span of Buster Keaton’s career, missteps like WHAT! NO BEER? are nothing more than blips.  Today Keaton is recognized as one of the silver screen’s true geniuses.  By other geniuses no less.

This write-up is my entry to the first annual Buster Keaton Blogathon hosted by Silent-Ology.  Be sure to visit the host site to read many more entries on Buster Keaton’s life and work.

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7 thoughts

  1. I was glad to hear you say it’s not the awful movie you’d read about. I’ve heard of this one but have never gone out of my way to search for it because I didn’t think I could bear it. I might give it a go, however, after reading your review.

  2. Yeah, Keaton had a definite drinking problem while making this one. I’m glad you liked it better than you’d heard, but, man, it’s a dog. Streets of New York may be worse, but it’s a tough call. If you watch any of his MGM talkies, Passionate Plumber is the best by a long shot.

  3. I’ll admit that I haven’t had the courage to watch this one all the way through yet–the parts where he’s obviously inebriated/hungover are simply depressing. But your report that it isn’t quite as bad as we’ve heard is encouraging. Thank you for submitting this balanced assessment to the blogathon, it’s very appreciated!

  4. One of the first books I read about movie comedy used What No Beer as an example of Buster’s disastrous decline. It used a photo of a big crash and implied that the whole movie was a big crash. I think that is why I never tried to see the movie. You have persuaded me to give it a shot. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

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