14 March 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
The first Walter Mitty.
'How Baxter Butted In' is a delightful comedy, featuring a daydreaming hero astonishingly similar to James Thurber's immortal creation Walter Mitty. Both men are overworked nobodies in their workaday lives, yet both are many-sided heroes in their fantasy worlds. The similarity between Walter Mitty and this film's protagonist Henry Baxter is so strong, I wonder if Thurber had seen this movie (his eyesight had not yet failed him by 1925) or had read the story by Harold Titus on which this film was based.
Henry Baxter (very well played by Matt Moore) is an accounts clerk at a newspaper office. He has a crush on the office's pretty stenographer Beulah (despite her hideous name), but she barely knows he's alive. Baxter's milquetoast existence is made more miserable by office manager Higgins, who bullies him constantly and steals Baxter's ideas. Overworked underpaid Baxter is the sole support of his widowed sister-in-law Emmy and her two small children.
As in Thurber's famous story, much of the comedy in this very funny movie derives from the extreme contrast between the hero's dull put-upon reality and his heroic fantasies ... as well as the transitions between his two worlds. When Baxter sits down to a bland meal of a soda cracker floating in a bowl of milk, the camera shows the floating cracker in tight close-up ... then neatly dissolves to a shot of a raft in mid-ocean, with Baxter and Beulah and Higgins as castaways on the raft. Of course, in this daydream and all his others, Baxter always triumphs over rival Higgins, and wins the girl.
The director of this film is William Beaudine, a notorious hack who is better known for such deathless epics as 'Billy the Kid versus Dracula' and 'Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla'. Those cheesily enjoyable crapfests are more typical of Beaudine's output than 'How Baxter Butted In'. I suspect that the excellence of this film, and its visual gimmicks, are largely down to the work of screenwriter Owen Davis.
Matt Moore is impressive in the lead role, all the more so because he is physically miscast. Henry Baxter should have been played by a meek little man like Johnny Arthur or George K Arthur or George E Stone. I wouldn't precisely call Moore brawny, but he's clearly capable of defending himself in a fight, and that compromises his characterisation here. Prolific character actor Otis Harlan is very good as Baxter's pal.
Very impressive indeed is the performance by tall handsome Ward Crane as the villainous Higgins. Crane is best known as Buster Keaton's crooked rival in 'Sherlock Jnr'. Here, he plays a similar role, but with more depth and much more screen time. Watching him here, I regret that Crane (who died young) never had a significant acting career. (Ironically, he died of pneumonia at a sanitarium for patients with tuberculosis: he had the wrong disease.) I'll rate 'How Baxter Butted In' 9 points out of 10. I might have rated it a perfect 10 if the heroine's name wasn't Beulah. Ugh!