This is career death: Buster Keaton's final film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that destroyed him. The legend is that the studio people thought they understood comedy better than the greatest physical comic of the silent era. The truth was that Keaton's big-budget spectaculars for United Artists, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. -- had not been especially popular with their original audiences, so Metro may have felt it necessary to steer Keaton in another direction, just as they would do, more successfully to an extent, with the Marx Bros. a few years later. Keaton made two silents for M-G-M that are conceded to retain some of his old spark. But Keaton in talkies proved hopeless. His voice made it easy for Metro to reinvent the Buster persona as an utter moron, though he did at least once revive his naive millionaire character for them. Worse, it was thought necessary that he say funny things, though thanks to the scripts he rarely did. Keaton wasn't reluctant to talk, but his own ideas for sound comedy were thwarted consistently. His inclinations ran from the parodic to the absurd. His idea to save his career was to film an all-star parody of Grand Hotel -- he'd wanted in on Grand Hotel itself but Lionel Barrymore got the part he wanted -- but of course the studio nixed the idea. In frustration with both his career and his marriage, he drank. In What! No Beer? he is often obviously sozzled on screen. That film might drive anyone to drink, whether you had to perform in it or watch it.
Edward Sedgwick directed; he made all but one of Keaton's Metro pictures, and by now was as void of inspiration as his star. Throughout the picture there are moments that have the potential for humor that might have been realized by a healthier Keaton and his old collaborators. There's potential, believe it or not, in the idea that Elmer Butts, a taxidermist, keeps money stuffed in his various specimens. In better days, Keaton might have run with the idea of storing much more in the stuffed animals, or using them as furniture, utensils, etc. But here Sedgwick seems to have no idea of how to frame the action so it works as gags. You see the same sort of failure repeatedly. Buster is handcuffed to Jimmy Durante -- in the story as well as in his career at that point -- and is flung about as Durante gesticulates wildly protesting their innocence to a judge. At his best Keaton would have choreographed this business with care and ensured that his director would have shot it to get the most laughs out of his pratfalls. In the finished product Sedgwick cluelessly shoots Buster crashing about aimlessly, as if his main concern -- and there's probably no "if" to it -- had been to record Durante's malaprops and mugging. Even Durante can't do anything with one of the film's big set pieces; his and Buster's first attempt to brew beer at their new brewery. Durante is working from an old family recipe that's pathetically small in scale given their resources, and the gag is that he, Buster and their three helpers (including stuttering Roscoe Ates) still louse up the job. Sedgwick has a large brewery set to work with, and no idea, probably having no input in its construction, of how to work with it. The sort of workplace comedy that the Three Stooges could do in their sleep seems beyond anyone's ability here. There's lots of spraying people with water, with hose gags that must have seemed old to the Lumiere brothers in 1896, but nothing that rises to the level of a true sight gag. What! No Beer? is one of the most ineptly directed comedies you'll ever see, and as such it exposes mercilessly how badly Keaton had deteriorated in his five years at Metro.
The idea is that Elmer Butts wants to make a million dollars to impress a girl (Phyllis Barry) he met outside an anti-Prohibition rally, not realizing that she's a gangster's moll. In this inspired-by-imminent-events fantasy, Prohibition is doomed by a national referendum, after some clumsy pratfalls in collapsible voting booths, and the Durante character assumes that beer will be legal the very next day. He convinces Elmer that he can make his million by investing his $10,000 nest egg in a brewery, but when they finally brew a batch large enough to sell they're raided by the cops. They're spared jail time only because they've actually failed to brew proper beer, but once Ates gives them a formula for then-legal "near beer" they become pawns in a power struggle between two gangsters for the last days of the bootleg market. In a badly written and performed scene one of the gangsters (Edward Brophy) invades Elmer's office, only to be impressed by Elmer's newly-learned sales talk (Buster conveniently reads his lines from the book) into thinking that "the frozen-faced guy" is a business mastermind. This alliance makes Elmer the enemy of the rival gangster (John Miljan) whose moll is the very girl Buster pines for. She exploits this to get information (and $10,000) from Elmer in the Pre-Code era's lamest seduction sequence, but she later inexplicably falls for him for real. The alleged slapstick highlight of the film is Elmer's thwarting of a hit on him by accidentally unloading his beer barrels from his truck so that they roll downhill and wipe out his assailants. It's a feeble imitation of the boulder gags from Seven Chances with none of the payoffs. The real climax comes when Mijan takes over the brewery and forces Durante & Co to make real beer. Elmer escapes by having himself sealed in a barrel and rolled off the premises. He then gathers a mob by driving through town promising free beer at the brewery. A horde descends on the place, and in the confusion Elmer takes out Miljan with a drop kick to the ankles that is, sad to say, the high point of acrobatics in this Buster Keaton picture. In the end, our heroes open a legal beer garden (misspelled "Butt's") and in a rush for his autograph another mob strips Elmer to his underwear, while Durante promises the audience that beer is coming soon to a town near them. He can't help adding a "hotcha-cha" to that, and I can't help wanting to break a bottle (or a barrel) over his head.
To be fair, Durante seems almost desperately conscious of a need to fill the void created by Keaton's implosion, even if his efforts seem to further suffocate his colleague. He's trying to save the picture, but Jimmy Durante can only do the opposite with his maddeningly repetitive shtick and his dismal malaprops. Some people actually dig that type of humor, and I can only feel sorry for them. Again, had the film had a more competent director and a more engaged star a better balance may have been struck between the co-stars' styles. A scene at Durante's barber shop is another missed opportunity. He raves about the referendum while lathering Elmer's face and while impulsively gesticulating cranks the lever that raises and lowers the barber chair, as all the while a stoic, silent -- almost Keatonesque -- black man struggles to shine Elmer's shoes. You can see the pieces of a promising gag sequence laying about, but Sedgwick is barely capable of putting one block on top of another and the result is more disorganized flailing about. In Sedgwick's defense, there are signs of heavy editing in the 65 minute picture. Shots are cut abruptly, probably in at least some cases to cover some lapse of Keaton's. In one case, near the end of the seduction scene, Sedgwick sets up a pratfall gag, but we never see Keaton take the fall. Had it gotten so bad that Buster couldn't manage such a simple task? Watching this film, you can believe it. It's one of the most demoralizing hours of cinema you could subject yourself to, and though you may know that Keaton would bounce back eventually, if not to full creative flower than at least in the esteem of movie lovers, you may find that hard to believe after seeing What! No Beer? This is a film that lives down to its bad reputation and may even exceed it. For some, my saying this may be a dare to watch the movie, but it lacks the spectacle and pathos of a more ambitious train wreck as well as anything like the incoherent inspiration that makes some bad films highly entertaining. What! No Beer? is so bad that it's terrible; for fans of Keaton it's downright horrifying.