1933’s What! No Beer? is a comedy based on Prohibition, an incident that many feel was a farce in its own right. The banishment of liquor contributed to the rise of bootlegging gangsters, whose exploits were recounted in many a Warner Bros. melodrama. But What! No Beer? instead focuses on the little guy, the go-getting opportunist unafraid of bending the law if a quick buck is involved. Still, even with a pair of vintage funnyman all-stars as its headliners, the flick barely summons enough pep to putter along, its potential for rowdiness boundless but any genuine momentum virtually nonexistent.
America has spoken, and it wants its booze back. State by state, voters are gathering en masse to repeal Prohibition, and some enterprising chaps can’t wait to cash in. Jimmy Potts (Jimmy Durante) is one such self-starter, so convinced that his fortune lies with buying a brewery and selling suds himself that he ropes his pal Elmer Butts (Buster Keaton) into investing his own life savings. Intent on wooing a gun moll (Phyillis Barry), Elmer agrees to the scheme, which doesn’t go off without its share of hiccups. For one, Prohibition hasn’t quite ended yet, so the cops force the boys to peddle their brew on the hush-hush. But when they inadvertenly muscle in on two local mobsters’ turf, Elmer and Jimmy must think fast in order to save their business, as well as their skins.
Normally, this is where I’d stubbornly insist that What! No Beer? hasn’t a thing on Buster Keaton’s incredible silent work, but the picture sort of undersells all of its comedic talent. Truthfully, this isn’t even really Buster’s show; he got top billing, but it’s Durante who mugs and Ha-cha-cha!s his way into our hearts most. The roles they play aren’t exactly out of character (Durante as the smiling scoundrel, Keaton as the lovestruck klutz), but What! No Beer? basically gives them jack-all to do. Jimmy and Elmer start a brewery, there’s a few pratfalls…and that’s it. Is there any visual novelty to the slapstick? No. Are the one-liners fast and funny? Not very. It’s borderline criminal to imagine all this combined skill (including Keaton’s The Cameraman director, Edward Sedgwick) having brainstormed this much dead air.
It’s not even the silent cinema snob in me that found What! No Beer? tapped out for yuks. I’ve enjoyed Keaton’s MGM sound films before, including his prior pairing with Durante, Speak Easily. Plus, I can’t say it’s either actor’s fault, since they both play to their strengths as well as they can, given the material. Durante’s mischievous grin makes him a perfect fit for what a rascal Jimmy turns out to be, and Keaton is, as ever, an oblivious innocent who just wants a nice gal. Their chemistry makes the movie hard to hate outright, but it still has a threadbare script that allows for few crackerjack jokes and even less rollicking set pieces. An amusingly-executed raid on Jimmy and Elmer’s factory at the end is too little, too late when stacked against the hackneyed antics that dominate most of the previous screen time.
What! No Beer? has its smiles, but it’s a low point for Keaton, the last straw from a studio that stifled much of what made him so dynamic. Buster left MGM after this and jumped into his Educational shorts, which were fun but still denied him the freedom that make his breakout films amazing to behold to this day. If you look back on What! No Beer? fondly, great for you, but I don’t think I’m alone in having spent a lot of it shaking the proverbial glass for one last droplet of laughter.