Friday, October 22, 2010

The Butler's Night Off - a toupological analysis.

A young William Shatner.

The Butler's Night Off is an obscure 1951 Canadian movie that is most famous today as the film in which William Shatner made his first ever screen appearance at a mere twenty years of age. To our knowledge, it is also the only time that the actor was credited on-screen as "Bill Shatner" rather than "William Shatner".

The film stars Paul Colbert as Roger LaRoche, Mary Lou Hennessey as Mary, Eric Workman as "the father" and Peter Sturgess as "the butler" - no character names are used in the credits, only in the story itself. Bill Shatner plays a nameless crook.

Now we'll try to tell you a little about the plot. Try? We think you'll see what we mean:

LaRoche is a social worker who runs a boy's club; he dreams of being able to raise the money to build the children a summer camp. His girlfriend, Hennessey, tells him that she has persuaded her rich uncle - who she reveals is actually her father - to finance the camp.

Meanwhile, Hennessey's very nosy butler is on his night off. He's been tracking the above events. We then follow a mysterious group of crooks (one of them played by Bill Shatner) who break into a clothes shop and kill the owner.

Turns out they've been hired by a businessman who wants to bump off his partner. They dump the body:

The butler has been watching this unfold too.

An excited LaRoche and his girlfriend tell the children that their dream of a summer camp will soon become a reality.

It's time to meet the father.

But the butler is convinced the man is a gold-digger and persuades his (scarily protective) boss of the same.

When LaRoche comes over to pick up his check, he discovers that it hasn't been signed.

The old man has no intention of giving him any money.

The girlfriend, undaunted by any of this, instead persuades her boyfriend to take some money she has in a safe. She simply insists that he have it! Mary tells the butler to have another night off so LaRoche won't be disturbed while he breaks into the safe.

The butler then returns to the location where he saw the body being dumped and for some reason takes the body home. This at the same time that LaRoche is at the house accessing the safe.

So now there's a dead body in the house and everyone will think that LaRoche did it! The butler begins to feel bad about his meddling.

The goons come back and see that the body they dumped is missing - they now need it now for proof they carried out their hit.

They remember seeing the butler in the area and track him down to the family mansion. As they arrive, LaRoche runs out of the mansion; the goons think it's the butler and kidnap him.

The butler then goes to a bar and finds out from some loose-lipped woman where the goons have taken LaRoche.

He then turns up at the hideout where the goons have LaRoche...

...and rescues the prisoner through the clever use of fire.

A car chase ensues...

The butler and LaRoche drive to the boy's club where the kids help beat up the goons.

It all ends with a giant pillow fight.

The happy couple kiss...

...and the father and finally abandons his suspicion of LaRoche and decides to fund the club after all.

What adventure will the butler have next?

Confused? So were we.

All of this may have the makings of a classic farce. But the problem is that the tone of the movie is as far from farce as can be. Dead serious, romantic, earnest - rather like a Frank Capra movie. Completely inappropriate given the events taking place on screen. This makes the whole film feel head-scratchingly ridiculous and woefully misjudged.

There's far, far, far too much plot to cram into such a relatively short feature film. It's a convoluted affair that really stretches any semblance of believability or credibility far beyond breaking point. Is it all entertaining, though? Not really. A farce filmed as a low budget film noir is not really the best recipe for success, we think. The actors perform well enough, the cinematography, dialog, music and other elements are also decent enough - but the overwrought story and the misjudged tone are simply impossible to overcome.

Let's move swiftly to the hair...

We've previously examined toup-less performances from the mid 1950s, but in those, efforts to combat thinning were already evident. Here, not only is there no toup, but also no thickening, styling or special combing. It's a unique performance in which toupological considerations are entirely non-existent. It's all real! That in itself is remarkable for anyone seeking to study how such issues may have affected Bill Shatner as an actor.

Notably, Bill Shatner's real hair is somewhat different from the "Jim Kirk lace" - the first major toupee choice that he made. The real hair is fluffier and finer; the young actor's naturally curly hair cut quite short and straightened out (this was common during this era).

Bill Shatner in 1947 - his real hair was curly. More here.

Sadly, Bill Shatner does not have one proper closeup in the entire movie.

As for his performance - it's really too small to rate in any meaningful way. Though, there is evidence of a shifting "gangster" accent and some small hint of the Shatner on-screen madness that we've come to know and love (see the last clip above).

There's also some interesting toupological symbolism in the movie - as if the director somehow knew that this young actor and his many future toupees would one day be famous. The very first major action that Bill Shatner undertakes in the film is to punch what he believes is a person.

It isn't - it's a shirt - an illusion.

Indeed, the entire location is interesting too. He's in a clothing shop surrounded by tailor's dummies. A comment on reality versus illusion?

Near the very end of the film, we also have a curious shot of a boy studying a man's bald head.

The flying detached feathers in the end fight scene - feathers being bird hairs - are also symbolic.

This being the case, it's very possible that director Roger Racine should be celebrated as a toupological prophet of sorts. Long before even Bill Shatner knew how important the toupee would become, the director was already using symbolism to create subtle yet highly meaningful signs.

Until recently, The Butler's Night Off was unavailable for viewing by the wider public (the movie wasn't even released commercially after it was completed), only accessible via various film archives. Now, the entire* movie has been made available for on-line viewing at the website - just click here.

An interesting film that albeit fails because of poor writing and misjudged direction - had there not been a connection to a famous actor, it would quite possibly have been entirely forgotten by now.

*The site has the movie at a little over 57 mins in length. lists the movie's running time as 74 mins. A mistake on the latter's part? Possibly. However, The Butler's Night Off, as we watched it, does have some rather odd, harsh cuts, so it's also possible that some footage is missing from the version. We'll try to get confirmation on this.


  1. Great find! Young Bill and real hair!!

  2. Bill looks like a very young TJ Hooker

  3. it's a toup. his mama & papa made it for him.

  4. It's quite probable that the Shat was born with a toup!!!It's almost certain that had he not adopted the toup he would have been another uknown actor.Society places great value in a bunch of hair and he gave us what we wanted.

  5. Great analysis! Actually I think that Shat looks better with a toup (at least the Jim Kirk Lace or the transplant/toup he has now) than with his real hair. His hairline was lower with his real hair, which I don't think suits him as well.

  6. very obvious lace line while wearing civilian clothes away from the ST set.

  7. Great pic, Brain Candy!
    I wonder, all the lace ritual... One thing is to apply the lace in the studio, with the makeup crew around. But to go out with an obvious thing like that...

  8. It was a little hard to tell which one he was in the low lighting of that last clip, but I knew as soon as he said,

    "I'M . . . . . . . . tired."

  9. Toupee or not toupee!October 26, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    Wow! Interesting! (As Spock would say)

    I had no idea he was acting on film as early as that. As an above poster has mentioned, Shat's 'real' hair was spookily TJ Hooker style in his youth. Perhaps nostaglia for his lost curly locks prompted him to sport the hilarious TJ Hooker toup!

    The Jim Kirk lace really suited him. I shall always 'believe' that to be his real hair. OK I'm in denial!

  10. Did Shat ever have an Enemy Within moment where he said "i wanna go back" where he wanted to ditch the hair transplant and just wear a toup all the time?

  11. A toupee is like a little white lie. The problem (or perceived problem) just gets bigger and bigger and more out of control. There comes a point where you can't go back.

    Like Alan Brady in the Dick Van Dyke episode where he has about 6 toupees that regress from a full head of hair to baldness because he's tired of wearing one and wants to be bald all the time.

  12. Shatner loves to lie about things though. So the toupee fits right in with his character (or lack thereof).

  13. yes this is indeed, young shatner, without toup! But he possibly, already even at 20, had a huge ego! I saw him, at an autograph show, in 2005, he was signing, so quickly that some, autographs, where upside down, he did not make, any eye contact, with anyone, the only star there, that day who acted, like that. I got him to sign 3 for me, at a cost, of 75 pounds, then loudly said, to him "thank you william", then the living toupee said "thank you" back. Where there is absolutly no doubt, about him as a good actor, as a man....mmmm i reserve judgement.

  14. chrome(dome) magnonOctober 14, 2016 at 10:05 AM

    But, more to the point, shat toup, did you get any acknowledgement from the toupee? I'm not quite sure what answer, if any, I'm expecting here, but, after reading some people's accounts of meeting Mr Shatner at various conventions, it seems to me that autograph hunters/purchasers might potentially get more acknowledgement of their existence from the faux hair rather than the man himself. I speak as a big, big fan of Mr Shatner (thankfully not in a sexual way-not yet anyway), but genuinely wish he did exercise a bit more graciousness toward the people who ultimately have helped him become the star he is. Ah well...