Somewhere among the myriad topics of conversation that occupy the time and test the patience of fight fans the world over lies the debate about the greatest boxing movie ever made. If you are my approximate age, chances are your introduction to the sweet science may have come courtesy of watching the Rocky movies as a youngster. Those whose tastes travel the shadowy back alleys of film noir just might be partial to Body and Soul, The Harder They Fall, or Requiem for a Heavyweight–excellent selections one and all.
Very often, the discussion is rightfully concluded and/or begun by the mere mention of Raging Bull. Robert DeNiro toted Jake LaMotta’s autobiography around Italy while making Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, stealing downtime in between laborious setups to read the former middleweight champion’s unscrupulous life story. Although he admitted that “it wasn’t a great book,” DeNiro recalled that “it had heart” and instantly recognized the possibilities of LaMotta’s memoir as “a jumping off point” for a screenplay.
Not as easily convinced was DeNiro’s close friend and frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese. Because the world of prizefighting was not intimately familiar to him, it took several years, during which the pair worked together on Taxi Driver and New York, New York, for Marty to finally see what DeNiro did in Jake LaMotta. Peeling away the book’s superficial layers during a self-destructive period of his own marked by box office disappointment, a dissolved marriage, depression, and egregious cocaine use, Scorsese was able to tap emotionally into its author’s Dostoevskian complexity and moral ambiguity, traits embodied by the flawed and wounded beings that populate each of his films.
“Bob and I extracted what was the essence of these characters,” said Scorsese about the pre-production stages of Raging Bull. “I always find the antagonist more interesting than the protagonist in drama, the villain more interesting than the good guy. Obviously, I find elements of myself in them and I hope people in the audience do too, and can maybe learn from them and find some sort of peace.”
As for how to approach the fight sequences, Marty not only picked up visual cues from the two matches he attended at Madison Square Garden (specifically the blood flying off the cornermen’s sponges and dripping from the ring ropes) but also turned to an unlikely source for cinematic inspiration. “The only person who had the right attitude about boxing in the movies for me,” Scorsese later revealed, “was Buster Keaton.”
Not unlike Martin Scorsese a half-century after the fact, Keaton entered into the making of his own prizefighting picture in 1926 at a point in his personal life ruled by “distractions, dalliances, divertissements, problems and all,” in the words of Buster biographer Rudi Blesh. However, while Scorsese was further plagued by the critical and financial failure of New York, New York, his 1977 follow-up to Taxi Driver, the deadpan slapstick comedian known as ‘The Great Stone Face’ was luxuriating in the excesses made possible by the increasing tally of gross receipts collected from his last five features.
Movie mogul Joseph M. Schenck was not only Buster’s boss at MGM but his brother-in-law as well, married to screen sensation Norma Talmadge while Keaton was wed to her younger sister Natalie who had co-starred in The Haunted House and Our Hospitality with her then-husband. For Keaton’s next project, Schenck purchased the film rights to the popular musical farce called Battling Buttler which kicked off a successful stage run at London’s New Oxford Theatre on December 8, 1922 before traveling across the pond to open on Broadway for a total of 313 performances between its stints at the Selwyn and Times Square Theatres.
Buster eliminated the song and dance routines, not to mention one of the t’s from Butler’s last name, and crafted a scenario revolving around a love story punctuated by pugilistic sight gags, two of which would threaten production. After first taking a tumble out of the practice ring assembled on set and landing on his head, necessitating a delay of nearly a week to nurse deep bruises, Keaton returned only to then strain ligaments in his neck and back during a complicated bit of business wherein he was to jump back into the ring from the outside and become entangled in the ropes. A physical fitness enthusiast like his mentor Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster insisted on performing his own stunts rather than employing the use of trick photography or the services of body doubles. The most jaw-dropping example of this was when the façade of a house falls down around him in the climactic cyclone sequence of Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) and a seemingly oblivious Keaton is framed precisely within the narrow boundary of the toppled structure’s blown-out second story window. Marion Meade, author of the Keaton biography Cut to the Chase wrote of Battling Butler that Buster “finished the picture sore and limping.”
Regardless of the absence of documented evidence substantiating allegations that Keaton harbored some sort of suicidal death wish, certain sources claim that Buster’s third and last wife Eleanor “suggested that he took such risks due to despair over financial problems, his failing first marriage, the imminent loss of his filmmaking independence, and recklessness borne of his worsening alcohol abuse at the time.” This claim, if true, would have certainly foreshadowed Martin Scorsese’s existential quandary prior to relenting to Robert DeNiro’s ceaseless persistence and committing to Raging Bull. Such a fatalistic mindset also mirrors that of Scorsese’s subject, Jake LaMotta himself who reflected, “I took unnecessary punishment when I was fighting. Subconsciously, I didn’t know it then, I fought like I didn’t deserve to live.” Or, as DeNiro’s LaMotta philosophizes to Joe Pesci, “I’ve done a lot of bad things, Joey. Maybe it’s coming back to me. Who knows? I’m a jinx maybe.”
Buster was no stranger to the financial, professional, and matrimonial woes referred to by Eleanor and did indeed seek solace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle, but it appears as though his willingness to risk life and limb by way of perilous stunts and pratfalls was simply standard operating procedure. In his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton describes his “harum-scarum, catch-as-catch-can, gag-grabbing method” as “seeming hopelessly mad” but assures the reader that it was all a means to an end with the intended goal being the delight of movie-going audiences. “The unexpected was our staple product,” he elaborated, “the unusual our object, and the unique was the ideal we were always hoping to achieve. Somehow some of the frenzy and hysteria of our breathless, impromptu comedy building got into our movies and made them exciting.”
Remember, this is coming from the man who had rounded out his parents’ vaudeville team The Three Keatons at the age of four with a suitcase handle sown onto the back of his coat so that his father could literally manhandle him, tossing his son pell-mell and willy-nilly around the stage, and then broke his neck without even knowing it in 1924 after a mishap occurred while filming the water tower scene for Sherlock Jr.
Whatever his motivation, Keaton’s fearless and often hazardous work ethic was one that Scorsese, DeNiro, and LaMotta could all surely relate to and each one indeed pursued to a lesser or greater extent. Between the real-life and onscreen Jake LaMotta and Buster Keaton’s completely fictitious Alfred Butler, there are no similarities. Whereas LaMotta led an existence of financial impoverishment and physical abuse, misdirected anger fueled by intense self-loathing, impulsive outbursts of violence, and a revolving door acquaintance with the insides of reformatories, Butler was familiar with inherited privilege, every whim being satisfied by servants and a mollycoddling mother, aloof social disconnect, and a total lack of materialistic want within the walls of his father’s massive estate. They are entirely different organisms, Alfred and Jake.
LaMotta, for example, pounds the prison walls while wailing “I’m not an animal,” reduced to the pathetic declaration also uttered by the Victorian-era human anomaly named John Merrick (real name Joseph, same as Buster Keaton) in David Lynch’s film released the same year, a bestial if coincidental link connecting the Raging Bull to the Elephant Man. Butler, on the other hand, was content to sit back and take advantage of all available creature comforts.
Far too content for the liking of his exasperated father who advised his son that embarking on a hunting and fishing trip to the mountains might make a man of him yet. His son, however, is hardly roughing it as he is accompanied by the family valet Martin (played by popular character actor Snitz Edwards who also had bit parts in The Thief of Baghdad, Phantom of the Opera, and The Public Enemy among many others) who serves Alfred breakfast in a brass bed set up inside a huge canvas tent containing all the accoutrements he is accustomed to back home.
The rabbits, wild turkeys, foxes, and deer in close proximity have no reason to fear the clueless Alfred who carries his rifle with the barrel slung over his shoulder, a position from which he chooses to take what he believes to be his best shot at a chicken. Instead, he barely misses a young woman in the woods behind him, the buckshot ripping her outheld handkerchief to shreds. Even as she chastises his haphazard technique, Alfred is instantly, hopelessly smitten.
When she reappears in the nick of time to come to the rescue just as his canoe becomes submerged, Alfred invites her to dinner at his campsite where he emerges from the tent in a tuxedo while Martin serves their meal on fine china. Sally O’Neil, a former vaudevillian hot off of her appearance in Sally, Irene, and Mary opposite Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford, portrayed Keaton’s love interest who is never given a proper name throughout the film.
Leafing through that day’s newspaper, Alfred is only mildly concerned by an article about a pugilist with the same name who is challenging The Pittsburgh Gorilla for the World Lightweight Championship. He is far more preoccupied by the Advice to the Lovesick column, asking Martin to arrange a marriage with “the pretty little mountain girl” and put a stop to the offending boxing match with the same casual attitude. The plotline of Battling Butler follows down familiar territory for Buster in the sense that he reverts to type by playing the part of the timid, inept lost cause forced to resort to uncharacteristically extreme behavior in order to win the heart of his lady love.
Having been told by her father that “we don’t want any weaklings in our family,” the quick-thinking Martin produces the newspaper article as well as Alfred’s calling card to set into motion the ruse that Alfred Butler the incompetent hunter and Alfred Butler the title contender are one and the same. Martin’s rationale that the heavily favored champion is sure to dispatch Battling Butler to the realm of obsolescence does little to convince Alfred to take the lead in this scheme. It is only when the girl’s father and brother give their enthusiastic approval to the impending nuptials that he consents to play along and Alfred is seen off to the train station by his sweetheart and her ever-present male chaperones to depart for his supposed championship match the following day.
After the Alabama Murderer, who has issued an open challenge to the winner, is introduced to the capacity crowd, Alfred and Martin watch in stunned disbelief as his pugilistic namesake lands a desperation uppercut while fending off a vicious assault against the ropes and puts the Pittsburgh Gorilla down for the count. The fight scenes in Battling Butler were filmed at the just-opened Olympic Auditorium, setting a historic precedent followed by a slew of other boxing movies, including but not limited to Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rocky, the 1979 remake of The Champ, Million Dollar Baby and, you guessed it, Raging Bull. “I’m champion,” Alfred deadpans to Martin long after everyone else has departed the arena and just before the Olympic’s lights dim and fade to black, a perfect visual to parallel his current outlook on life.
Upon his return to confront his bride-to-be with the truth, Alfred is overwhelmed by the welcoming party that descends upon him with handshakes and congratulations and, before he knows it, is led by marching band to the girl’s house where the marriage ceremony is about to begin. The reception comes to an abrupt halt when someone runs in with a newspaper opened to the story of Battling Butler defending his new lightweight title against the Alabama Murderer on Thanksgiving Day with training to commence tomorrow. To keep up appearances, Alfred must attend the actual Butler’s camp, breaking it to his new wife, who of course wants to accompany him, “I want you to know me as I am. Not as the brutal, blood-thirsty beast that I am when fighting.” There follows a beautifully framed shot where Alfred kisses his bride goodbye through the small oval back window of his chauffeur-driven car and Sally O’Neil remains in the sight line, slowly diminishing as they pull away down the road and Buster continues to look longingly over his shoulder. As with almost all of his other shorts and features made since becoming a bankable star, Keaton pulled double duty on Battling Butler as actor and director.
Along the way, Martin and Alfred encounter Battling Butler’s wife who is hobbling through the countryside with the heel of her shoe broken. Unwittingly, they give her a lift to the hotel where the hapless Alfred signs the register as ‘Battling Butler’ right beneath the name of the actual lightweight titleholder who witnesses this scene and is none too pleased.
Wandering aimlessly into the gym where Butler is training, Alfred notices the woman from earlier and attempts to make harmless small talk. “How’s your heel?” he asks. Without missing a beat, she gestures toward the ring where Butler is having his way with his sparring partner and replies, “He’s all right.” Mistaking their casual conversation for flirtation, an enraged Butler knocks his spar mate out with a single punch without taking his eyes off his wife and this odd interloper. Formerly a mustachioed hero in the approximate mold of Douglas Fairbanks, Francis McDonald removed his facial affectation and became renowned for playing big-screen baddies such as Battling Butler. His most villainous role was that of John Wilkes Booth in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), loosely based on the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd.
Alfred, meanwhile, discovers that his wife has shown up at the camp and decides to suit up and blend in with Battling Butler’s roadwork crew which runs by the hotel where his paramour waves frantically to her alleged champion in training. After they pass out of view, Alfred stops to catch his wind and rejoins the assemblage only when they jog back through eight miles later. The tipping point comes when Battling Butler arrives back at his hotel room to find his wife and Alfred alone in the dark and cannot be convinced that he was only there to help her replace a burnt-out lightbulb.
As depicted in Martin Scorsese’s movie, Jake LaMotta often took out life’s frustrations on his wives for real or imagined transgressions, whether terrorizing his first wife about an overcooked steak which, DeNiro yells, “defeats its own purpose” or brutalizing Vikki in broad daylight because he can’t get it out of his head that she is fucking Joey. Battling Butler appears to have similar inclinations when dealing with spousal troubles. Seated out front of the hotel, his wife’s left eye is freshly blackened. Things only get progressively worse when Alfred’s mountain girl takes the seat beside her and a box of chocolates is placed on the table between them “with the compliments of Mr. Butler.” Naturally, tempers flare as each woman jumps to the logical conclusion that the candies are for her.
When the lightweight champion happens along and is approached by Martin about setting the record straight, he instead doubles down on the deception. “If he wants to be Battling Butler, let him fight the Alabama Murderer and he’ll never flirt with anybody else’s wife.” Alfred’s own bride is still unaware of the duplicity and he intends to keep it that way, even at his own peril. “I’d rather be killed by the Alabama Murderer than have her know,” he tells Martin.
So disastrous is Alfred’s workout that he gets his ankles and neck alternately twisted up in the ropes (resulting in Keaton’s aforementioned injuries), has his left glove inadvertently laced to the second ring strand, and allows even the practice dummy to get the better of him. His roadwork doesn’t go any better, the highlights of which are a car wreck, a slip off a small bridge into a pond, and a romp through a muddy field.
Clutching a lucky horseshoe and dressed as if for the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and not a championship prizefight, Alfred enters the Olympic Auditorium’s locker room to prepare for his lightweight title defense. He attempts unsuccessfully to sneak out by lying atop Joe Slattery who is being carried off on a stretcher following his encounter with One Round Hogan in what was billed as the “semi-windup” after witnessing the Alabama Murderer shadowboxing through a door left ajar. The unhinged challenger wallops his trainer who executes a full somersault in mid-air before a painful crash-landing.
No sooner does Alfred’s wife arrive, only to be locked in a utility closet by Martin lest she witness her husband’s certain demise, then chants of “Butler! BUTLER!” emanate from within the auditorium. Pulling open the sliding peekaboo window that looks out onto the arena, Alfred is shocked and confounded at the sight of Battling Butler having his hand raised in victory while standing over the bloodied and beaten form of the Alabama Murderer. Butler’s trainer, who had been guiding Alfred through his workout debacles, reveals their double cross by remarking, “You didn’t think we’d throw away a championship just to get even with you.”
Buster retained the staged production’s bait and switch ending wherein Alfred is spared having to engage the Alabama Murderer in fisticuffs but tacked on an additional one of his own, conscious of the fact that he couldn’t very well swindle his audience into believing “for seven reels that I was going to fight in the ring and then not fight.” With that in mind, Keaton devised the dressing room melee between Battling Butler and his suddenly lionhearted impostor. With his horrified wife and a semi-conscious Martin observing from the hallway, Alfred lays Butler out with a left cross and a right to the ribcage, picks him up off the floor to deck him again with a right hook, then does it again and has to be physically restrained by the boxer’s cornermen from continuing his frenzied onslaught.
Martin Scorsese, so impressed by the scene’s realism and the pace of the action, filed it away for future reference in the comprehensive card catalog of his mental film library, retrieving this specific memory when commencing work on his own boxing movie. “I was never a fight fan,” Scorsese admitted. “When I’d seen boxing matches between double features on Saturday afternoons as a kid, it was always from the same angle, and that’s why I became so bored.” Aware that properly positioning and maneuvering the camera around the actors and their environment can similarly manipulate the viewer’s perspective and evoke particular emotions, Marty took a page from Keaton’s filmmaking textbook and gave all due credit to the influence of Battling Butler for why “in Raging Bull, the camera almost always stays in the ring with Jake.”
Still wearing his boxing gloves and trunks with no shirt, Alfred Butler strolls triumphantly down the crowded sidewalk outside the arena, a top hat and cane completing his bizarre ensemble. He takes no notice of the wide berth created around him by the chagrined pedestrians. His love-struck eyes never leave the sweet face of his “pretty little mountain girl”.
Although Battling Butler is considered by critics to be one of Keaton’s lesser undertakings, and Buster dedicates not a single line to it in his memoirs, he is nevertheless said to have retained fond feelings toward his prizefighting picture. It goes without saying that 1920s movie buffs, who paid a cumulative total of $749,000 at the box office, were endeared to it as well. It was Keaton’s highest grossing feature to date, although not for long. His next project would be The General, a Civil War film of which the focal point is a locomotive of the same name, universally hailed as Buster’s masterpiece. Released seven months before the Tunney/Dempsey “long count” rematch, which Buster attended with Roscoe Arbuckle, The General would take in more than a million dollars.
I thought it interesting to note and not totally irrelevant to the topic at hand that born in 1972, six years after the passing of Joseph ‘Buster’ Keaton, a British cruiserweight by the name of John Keeton paid homage to the silent film comedian by choosing ‘Buster’ as his ring moniker. The Sheffield-born boxer didn’t exactly stand the sporting world on its head with his record of 28 wins (18 by way of knockout) as opposed to 17 defeats, 13 of which occurred inside the distance for an astronomical KO’d By ratio of 76%. However, and even if he didn’t maintain possession of either one for terribly long, ‘Buster’ Keeton did manage to capture two major championships during his 16-year career, the WBF and BBBofC cruiserweight belts.
So, the next time you are involved in a lively film discussion wherein you are called upon to extol the many virtues of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, be sure to put forth the theory that it may well have looked like a much different movie (or maybe, just maybe, it might not have been made at all) had it not been for Buster Keaton trading in his porkpie hat for a pair of boxing gloves in 1926.