In the 1930s, the film studio MGM starred Buster Keaton with Jimmy Durante in an attempt to shore up Buster’s ailing career. The pair made three films together, which Keaton hated and the public loved.
Keaton and Durante starred in Speak Easily (1932), The Passionate Plumber (1932) and What! No Beer? (1933). All three were financial hits, but Keaton’s undisguised dissatisfaction with the constraints the studio placed upon him, exacerbated by his alcoholism, led MGM to put an end to the experiment.
In What! No Beer?, Elmer J. Butts (Buster Keaton) stumbles into a temperance meeting, takes one look at a gangster’s moll and falls in love with her. Urged on by his friend Potts (Jimmy Durante), Elmer agrees to sink $10,000 of his savings into a beer factory. Elmer’s naive logic tells him that the profits from their fledgling beer empire will give him enough money to woo his dream girl.
Butts is a taxidermist and has hidden his cash in some of the animals and birds in his store. The pelican has a few hundred dollars in its pouch, the skunk has $500, a seal with a zip fastening also holds bank notes and so does the pouch of a kangaroo.
The plot is, of course, ludicrous, particularly in the scenes in the brewery, where Potts and Butts at first make only a couple of bottles of beer in the huge mixer. They finally discover how to make more, but when a depot is raided the beer is found to have no alcoholic content.
One of the film’s best sequences – and typical of Keaton – is when Butts is pursued by gangsters while driving a truckload of beer barrels. The barrels fall off and roll down the hill, routing the racketeers. This episode is likely to have been Keaton’s idea, recreating a brilliant nine-minute chase in the silent Seven Chances (1925) in which Keaton is pursued by hundreds of brides to be and involving him tumbling down a hill followed by an avalanche of stone boulders.
The New York Times review (11 February 1933) said that What! No Beer? “has many hilarious incidents, with the hoarse-voiced Mr. Durante delivering the lively comedy and Mr. Keaton being comically foolish, although he appeals to the gangsters in the wild tale as a mastermind. One might say that this film is propaganda for hastening the Congressional decision on real beer.”
The film creaks a bit and, in contrast to Keaton, Durante sounds and looks like he is making the whole thing up, while Buster is kept busy improvising gags. In real life, Durante’s father, Bartolomeo, was a barber and, in the film, Durante’s character Jimmy runs a barber shop. He must have taken great pleasure in doing the hair-cutting scene.
With hindsight, Keaton was not the best choice for a film about bootlegging, since he spent much of his professional career battling alcohol. He began working on What! No Beer? immediately after his much publicised divorce from actress Natalie Talmadge and admitted “trying to drink away my sorrow and woe every night.”
Despite being fired by MGM when the film was complete, this was not the end of Keaton. After a spell in a drying out clinic (where Keaton once performed one of his own slapstick stunts, escaping his fourth story room by sliding down a drain pipe in the dark), he went back to making short comedies and in later years found further success in feature films and television. In 1964 he even made a 25-minute travelogue for the National Film Board of Canada called The Railrodder.
It was a marvellous career, and Keaton later wrote: “I’ve had few dull moments and not too many sad and defeated ones. In saying this I am by no means overlooking the rough and rocky years I’ve lived through. But I was not brought up thinking life would be easy. I always expected to work hard for my money and to get nothing I did not earn. And the bad years, it seems to me, were so few that only a dyed-in-the-wool grouch who enjoys feeling sorry for himself would complain.”