13 August 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
'Battling Butler' on horseback
'The Hottentot' has strong similarities to Buster Keaton's film 'Battling Butler', made a few years later. In both movies, the main character is (at the beginning) an ineffectual and clumsy man who coincidentally has the same name as a popular athlete. In both movies, mistaken identity leads the klutz to substitute for his athletic namesake. Both films are comedies, yet in each case the story leads to a dead-earnest climax in which the protagonist must suddenly develop athletic prowess. Also, both films were based on successful stage plays: 'The Hottentot' was originally a play by veteran stage actor Willie Collier. The stagebound origins presented no problem for 'Battling Butler', in which the central sport was boxing. But the sport in 'The Hottentot' is steeplechase racing, which is nearly impossible to depict in a theatrical production. When 'The Hottentot' played onstage, the climactic events had to occur offstage. In this film, no such problem occurs.
Douglas MacLean (a fine light comedian) plays Sam Harrington, a high-strung young man who happens to have the same name as a popular steeplechase jockey. Sam (this one) has never been on a horse in his life, and in fact he's afraid of horses. But he enjoys impressing people who think he's the famous jockey. To take advantage of this, Sam starts strutting about in riding boots and jockey silks, while boasting of his race victories. Eventually the imposture gets out of hand, requiring Sam to substitute for his namesake in a real steeplechase. He reluctantly goes along with this, hoping to impress pretty Peggy Fairfax. Come the day of the race, Sam discovers that the horse selected for him to ride is a notoriously ferocious black stallion ... the Hottentot! Comic events ensue.
'The Hottentot' is an amusing comedy that never becomes first-rate, largely due to the unconvincing staging of the racing sequences, but also due to the bland performance of Madge Bellamy in the female lead. Another similarity between this film and 'Battling Butler' is that, in both movies, the hero receives substantial assistance from his loyal manservant. In the case of 'Battling Butler', Keaton is abetted by his resourceful valet Snitz Edwards. In 'The Hottentot', the best performance is given by Raymond Hatton as Sam's unflappable butler named Swift. (Swift by name, yet hardly Swift by nature.) But 'The Hottentot' is not so hot. 'Battling Butler' is better. In the early 1960s, an interviewer asked Buster Keaton to name his favourite of his films: Keaton was expected to plump for 'The General' or 'The Navigator', but he surprised everyone by choosing 'Battling Butler' ... probably because of its deadly-serious climax. I also consider 'Battling Butler' the most generic of Keaton's films: it's the only one of Keaton's starring vehicles in which I can most easily imagine almost any other silent-film leading man doing as well in the lead role. 'The Hottentot' has the same feel as 'Battling Butler' but isn't nearly as good. I'll rate this movie 5 out of 10. Whoa, horsey!