If there is one thing that I think we can all agree on, it is that William Shatner is the greatest actor who has ever lived, or will ever live.
We would then reasonably expect that the very first appearance of this god made flesh, this indomitable future titan of the stage, TV and silver screen would be in a role that showcased his incredible talent. Oh, we shouldn’t expect some huge leading man performance for a first timer, but something more along the lines of a small but essential part that clearly displayed his fiery range, that made him stand out above all the others in the production. A role that would make manifest to all watching that this actor, this almost otherworldly figure on the screen before them, had firmly claimed the throne that was so rightly his.
Instead we get The Butler’s Night Off, a 1950 (probably, more on this later) film by Roger Racine that, if I’m being charitable, is a somewhat competently directed but tonally confused mishmash of different genres. If I’m being uncharitable, it’s a boring mess of a movie that is only 57 minutes long but feels at least twice that upon viewing. Most egregious of all though is that Sir William is barely in the film, although he does have a few scenes (more specifically he has a few lines) where his Shatnerness can be glimpsed in its embryonic glory.
Let’s first summarize, as best we can, the labyrinthine plot of the film. Fair warning: I’m about to provide spoilers for an obscure movie almost seven decades old. If you would rather watch the film prior to this summary and review, well you’re in luck, friend! Just head on over to Cinema in Quebec and view on the tiny screen provided to your heart’s delight. It’s free and it’s worth it, if only to say that you now belong to a select club that watched, in its entirety, the first appearance of the world’s most notable thespian. After watching, or before if you don’t mind skipping it (shame!), follow me down and we’ll see if we can’t get through dissecting this thing together.
The opening credits roll, containing both a healthy dose of whimsical music and title card caricature drawings depicting the main characters and some of the hijinx to ensue. This all serves to announce to the viewer that they are about to enter a fanciful farce of a movie, replete with funny business and light-hearted love. This is partially correct, as the movie is some kind of rom-com farce but shot like a hard-boiled film noir and containing some murder for good measure. But, I get ahead of myself.
The movie starts with the titular butler, Sturgess (played by Peter Sturgess, just one of several characters in the film who lazily share their actor’s real name) skulking around outside of Montreal’s Brighton’s Boys Club in what turns out to be the middle of the night. Although thankfully the Butler never reveals himself to be a member of NAMBLA, you would be forgiven for feeling your spider-sense tingling here as he does manage in a very short time to clearly (but I think, kind of unintentionally) convey to the viewer that he is a world-class pervert.
Sturgess hides behind a tree and watches as Mary (Mary Lou Hennessy, told you) pulls up to the front steps of the Club and heads inside. He then proceeds to stand around and drink from an enormous silver flask with a 4×6 headshot perfectly natural photograph of Mary’s face taped to the front of it. This photo is there to visually explain, just in case you still haven’t gotten it, that Sturgess is interested in Mary. Really interested. REALLY REALLY INTERESTED. He wants to bone her.
Mary heads up to visit her beau, Roger Laroche (Paul Colbert) who was listed on the sign outside as the “Sports Director” of the Boys Club. Roger (pronounced Roh-cher) is a Francophone, much like the director Roger Racine whom I can only assume he was named after, and he is very excited to hear that Mary has managed to get the money he needs to open his “Camp of the Braves” from her rich uncle. Roger apparently lives, works and breathes for the young boys under his care at the Boys Club, and he has decided that they need an outdoorsy camp to spend their summers at. They are so important to him, and Roger so important to Mary, and Mary so important to pervy Sturgess, that all three of them are awake and peppy at what Mary says is 4am. I can only assume that cocaine was involved, because none of them act tired in the least.
Shortly after being told this wonderful news regarding his financial windfall, Roger hears one of the young boys groaning in pain in the other room, and he and Mary head in to comfort him. You see, the boys (who may be orphans, or at the least are disadvantaged youths attending the club) sleep there in a big room full of small beds, safe in the knowledge that, should they ever cry out, Roger Laroche “Sports Director” will always be there to comfort them.
While Roger sits on the bed with the boy with the stomachache, his little head gently cupped between Roger’s thighs, Mary and Roger kiss and canoodle…until Mary confesses to Roger that it wasn’t her uncle that gave her the money, but her rich father. “That man fathered me!” she explains to Roger in the most awkward dialog ever heard outside of Birdemic or The Room.
In fact, Mary has been lying to Roger about the identity of her father AND that she is not a social worker as Roger thought she was. How does Roger react to finding out that their relationship has been built on a litany of lies, you ask? Well, he’s just fine with it, ordering Mary to sit down and kiss him over a prone orphan cradled literally in his crotch, and proclaiming to Mary that he would accept the money “Even if I have to go to jail for it” which is pretty obvious foreshadowing. Keep in mind, this entire scene is set to the most wonderfully whimsical music outside of a Disney film so none of this is creepy at all, right?
While Mary and Roger converse and kiss over sleeping boys, one of the little urchins wakes up and begins giving Roger the business. Enter Buck, (or Butt, I’m not sure exactly what Roger calls him) the lovable scamp who you could just tell the filmmakers were really enamored with as a character. I imagine the “writer” of the film chuckling with glee while penning the part, sure that this little guy was going to absolutely steal the show with his catchphrase, “Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!” However, as far as movie companions go, Butt Buck falls much closer to Jar Jar Binks than BB-8 on the spectrum. His line readings are all done in the same shrill but flat tone of voice and of course, as child actors are wont to be, he’s far more obnoxious than funny. That “Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!” thing does get stuck in your head though, no doubt about it. I say that at least once a day now. Shit…I guess Buck Butt did his job after all!
As Roger escorts Mary out of the Boys Club and back to her car, Sturgess overhears everything from his perv perch behind the tree: Roger is a social worker at the Club who needs money to start a camp, Mary is going to get her father to write a check to Roger the following night when Roger comes calling and, most alarmingly to Pervert Pervstein McDrunk, Mary loves Roger and he is soon going to ask for her hand in marriage. Sturgess, knowing that Mary’s rich father has no inkling that his daughter is seeing a lowly social worker (which is odd considering it’s 4am in damn morning and she isn’t at home) slouches off to plan how to break up Roger and the object of his affection, his boss’s young daughter.
Cut to a panicked man running down a dark alley. He’s stumbling, afraid, desperate. He turns, cornered, and sees three men slowly advancing towards him. One of those men is William Shatner. History is made.
Shatner (credited for the first and only time in his career as “Bill Shatner”) plays one of four “crooks” in the film. His performance has a bit of the manic psychotic that would prominently feature in a lot of his future roles, but for the most part is pretty thin and uninspired. This in no way is Shatner’s fault. The three henchman are the most underwritten characters in the entire film. The fact that, of the three, Shatner’s crook is by far the most memorable is a testament to his acting style.
Physically, Shatner just rubs his hands together a lot, I guess to show that he has a lot of nervous energy and that he lives to punch people. Indeed, one of the crooks tells Shatner’s character to “Take it easy…just mess him up a little.” To which Shatner responds with his first on-screen dialog, “Yeah, yeah.” Shatner’s crook is pretty clearly being set up to be the “really dumb but really strong thug”, but there aren’t many places for him to convey that character throughout the film, so it mostly just falls into a weird mishmash of character traits that never really tie together. The crooks enter the clothing shop where the man they are chasing is hiding and Shatner punches him once, instantly killing him. Behold the power of Montreal’s own, Le Shat!
The crooks know that they have done the wrong thing, and so they grab the body and dump it into a conveniently empty, body-sized box in an alleyway behind a tavern. Little do they know that our lovable skeezy butler, Sturgess, has seen the whole thing. Apparently, after leaving Mary and Roger, Sturgess headed straight to the tavern and was there until they threw him out at closing time. Why there was a tavern open at what must now be 6am is beyond me, but maybe that is how Montreal was back in 1950.
Now, does Sturgess phone the police after seeing three men dump a body? Oh, hell no! That’s not how Sturgess rolls. In fact, he just opens the box, confirms that the man inside is dead and then takes the flower from his lapel and puts it on top of the makeshift casket. And then he heads home. First stalking, and now failure to report a crime. Oh Sturgess, you scamp!
The next morning, after what I assume must have been another few lines of blow for all those who were out late, everyone is up and super peppy again. Sturgess, as the butler attending to Mary’s father (Eric Workman), tells him that Mary is seeing Roger and indeed, is intending to marry him soon. The father is inexplicably furious at hearing this news. It’s a comic scene that was obviously designed to be funny, with the dad shouting out lines like “What does he do to them?” after Sturgess says that Mary’s boyfriend works with children. But, much like everything in this film, it comes off as more awkward and/or perverted than farcical.
Sturgess is very pleased with himself and retires upstairs to his room where he pours himself three fingers of whiskey and admires the pictures of Mary that he has hung on the wall of his masturbatorium. One of the pictures is a two-shot of Mary and Roger together which greatly displeases the budding Hannibal Lector and he crosses out Roger’s face with a marker. Soon he’ll start cutting out all of the eyes from his photos of Mary, strip naked and start running around Montreal in the moonlight looking for small animals to kill. I mean, one assumes.
Later that night his plan seems to work perfectly. Roger comes calling at the house for the money promised to him by Mary’s father. Dad refuses to give him a single red cent and basically tells him to get out and never come back. Sturgess listens to the whole thing from the hallway, gleefully drinking from his flask and probably planning how best to snap his next photo of Mary through her venetian blinds.
But Mary, undeterred, tells Roger that he should just come back that night while she and her father are at dinner, break into the house and steal Mary’s savings bonds. This should give Roger more than enough money to open up his camp for boys, and it gets around the sticky fact that Mary can’t legally use the bonds herself for another three months. Of course, Sturgess overhears the whole conversation, and when Mary gives him the night off (ladies and gentlemen, we have our title!) Sturgess devises a plan to hopefully clear Roger out of the way forever.
The butler drives over and grabs the dead body. For those of you on Sturgess crime count, this is number three. On his way out of the alley he passes the three crooks, who have themselves returned to retrieve the body for their boss, Mr. Carson, a man who sits in his basement lair dealing with his allergies and talking to his parrot, Laura. Again, supposed to be funny, just turns out to be strange and awkward.
Apparently, the dead man was Carson’s partner, and now that Shatner made the mistake of killing him Carson wants to see the body for some completely inexplicable reason. In fact, when the crooks bring back the box with what they think is the murdered man inside only to find that it contains the town drunk instead, Carson orders them to go out and find the real body immediately. This just seems like a recipe for drawing a lot of unnecessary attention to yourself. Anyway, one of the crooks remembers the make and model of the butler’s car, and Carson uses his connections to find out the address where the car is registered.
This scene is by far the best one in the film, as it provides us the truest glimpse into the budding magic of William Shatner. When Carson orders his thugs out to get the body, Shatner thrusts a finger in the air and shouts, “I’M…tired.” Carson asks whether he would rather be dead, and Shatner nervously giggles and responds in what will soon be the famous Shatner staccato delivery, “Lets. Go. Get. The Body!” These line readings are so bizarre, so out of place, so over-the-top that they increase in fascinating power upon each repeat viewing.
Roger, meanwhile, after learning how to jimmy a window from Butt Buck (ha ha! Kids love breaking and entering!) gets into the safe and steals the bonds. On his way out of the darkened room, however, he stumbles across the dead body lying on the floor…planted by the lovable Sturgess who is watching all of this unfold from one of his 74 carefully researched stalker locations. Roger drops some bonds and runs away terrified, out of the house and into the waiting arms of Carson’s goons.
Mary arrives, greets Sturgess and quickly discovers the body. Her first thought is that Roger killed the man, a notion that the butler is quick to back up, “He seemed a trifle homicidal to me, ma’am.” Mary breaks down and cries and asks Sturgess for help. As soon as she does a swelling hopeful music plays, turning what had been Sturgess’s monotone line readings away from cold-blooded sociopath and to cold-blooded sociopath with a heart of gold. He agrees to help her, and heads up to his masturbatorium to chug some whiskey and stare at pictures of Mary while he comes up with a plan.
Yes, there is still a dead body just rotting in Mary’s fucking living room.
He gets the idea to head to a bar with underworld connections. He (mostly) pretends to be extremely drunk, while loudly proclaiming to all around that the crooks grabbed “the wrong fellow!” and took a social worker instead of a butler. A guy at a nearby table hears this and immediately calls some other underworld friend to tell him this hilarious news! Then there is a brief disturbing montage of close-up faces laughing hysterically (I presume to show how Carson and his henchman are the laughing stock of society’s underbelly now) followed by the phone ringing at the bar. The drunk woman next to Sturgess picks it up, listens to the story and then proceeds to tell Sturgess that “They have the wrong guy!” He asks where, she tells him and then he drops the drunk act, thanks the woman and heads out to save Roger.
If all of that sounds incredibly complex, as well as just generally confusing and bizarre then you’ve finally picked up on the overall tenor of this whole movie.
Sturgess races over to where Carson’s gang is beating up Roger. They yell at him to tell them where the butler is, but Roger of course has no idea what they are talking about. Just as Carson is about to use his thumbs to gouge in Roger’s eyes (Jesus, this film gets really inappropriately dark at times…remember when it was a light-hearted love farce?)
Sturgess turns out the lights and starts a fire using the high-proof hooch in his liquor flask. In the confusion, he grabs Roger and they jump into a car to race away. Shatner and gang hop into their own car, Shatner firing his gun madly as they pursue.
Now, whenever I’m being chased by armed underworld criminals (happens more often than you might think) I always head directly to the nearest Boy’s Club. Logically, this is just what Sturgess and Roger do as well. And once I’m in the Club, I hurry to my favorite hiding place: the hall where all of the kids ages 4-14 are peacefully slumbering. Again, and quite logically, Sturgess and Roger do the same. Roger hides behind a pillar, but Sturgess (as would befit a true-blue pervert of his inestimable stature) hops right into bed with one of the kids.
For some reason, this brilliant hiding place does not fool the crooks who almost immediately discover the butler and move to grab him. Roger runs over to fight, which naturally wakes up the kids. Did I say kids? I meant the crack A-Team like fighting force that springs into action, jumping on the crooks, beating them with pillows, kicking them, biting them, and ultimately defeating them.
Near the end of the fight, with all of the pillows busted and feathers floating through the air, the police rush in with Mary and her father in tow. They arrest the bad guys, including Mr. Carson who is almost utterly incapacitated due to his allergies to feathers (yes, that seeming inconsequential plot point paid off!) Roger and Mary kiss, her dad and some little boy look like they are going to kiss but don’t, everyone is happy and it seems like Roger will get the money he needs to open his camp after all!
Sturgess stares wistfully and sadly at Mary and Roger’s love, leaves the room to its revelry and heads back down to his car. When he gets outside, he takes one last look at the picture of Mary that he probably keeps inside his underwear and then tosses it away.
Suddenly he hears a woman screaming for help, apparently being attacked in a dark alley near the school. Sturgess cries, “Coming, Miss! Coming!” (which…ewww) and runs to help her, umbrella raised. Oh, Sturgess! What kooky adventures will you have (and what woman will you stalk) next! Yay, Sturgess!!!
But wait…what about the body that Sturgess took and put into his employer’s house? Won’t the police want to know how it got there? Won’t Sturgess be fired at the very least, and more likely have to face some charges? What happens when the police find his masturbatorium? I guess we shouldn’t think about that because this movie was just a light-hearted escapist farce, complete with world-class stalking, eye-gouging and murder. Ha ha ha?
All in all, this is a largely disappointing film. It’s short but seems long, the plot is both awkward and convoluted, the tone veers wildly from rom-com to noir, and the writing is stilted, odd and often unfunny. At the same time, the cinematography is actually quite good, attributed to the director, Roger Racine, a notable cinematographer in Canada at the time (see more below.) And, of course, Shatner notches his first credit here with a couple of great Shatnerian lines that elevate this just barely above being skippable for all but the most dedicated Shatnerites. There is definitely some of the manic energy bordering on (and sometimes tipping over into) psychotic action that would become a Shatner staple in the years and decades to come, but it is, by necessity here, fairly muted.
There is very little information surrounding the making of this film and Shatner’s involvement in it. Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now, strangely makes no mention of this earliest screen appearance, despite spending a number of pages on his other activities acting, directing and performing in other capacities at McGill University in his hometown of Montreal.
The Butler’s Night Off, although the dates are a little conflicting, appears to have been shot in 1950 and never commercially released. IMDB lists it as a 1951 picture, but the website where the film can be viewed tags it as a 1950 movie. I’m going with the Quebec film website, thank you very much. One thing that I’ve found while meticulously researching Shatner films and TV appearances is that IMDB is wrong a surprising amount of the time. I guess you can’t believe everything you read on the internet anymore! Most likely, the film was shot in late 1950, with post-production completed in early 1951 and then never released.
In 1950, Shatner would only have been 19. In fact, it is entirely plausible that he was only 18 when the film was shot, as the exterior scenes all show folks walking around in heavy coats. This clothing would seem to suggest that the filming took place in the winter of early 1950 (prior to or around Shatner’s 19th birthday) or, far more likely, later in the fall of that same year.
Shatner would have probably been a Junior at McGill, studying Economics on his way to graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, ostensibly to follow in his father’s footsteps in the clothing business. However, during his 3rd year at college, he clearly already saw himself destined for far greater things in the world of show business and told his father that he really wanted to act professionally.
He did finish his education…in case things didn’t work out as an actor, he could have always returned to Montreal and his father’s clothing business. I’ve seen him fold a suit in person and he’s quite good at it, but fate had far grander things in store for him.
This being Shatner’s earliest screen appearance, and in an obscure and largely unseen Canadian film to boot, there are understandably very few connections to future Shatner work.
Roger Racine, the director, was actually a pretty notable figure in Canadian film and television history, and not just for giving our future leader his first credit. Apparently, Racine was widely considered one of the best (if not the best) Canadian cinematographer from 1941-1952. Indeed, the cinematography and lighting are probably the most praiseworthy aspects of this film outside of William Shatner’s presence.
Shortly after making this film, Racine was promoted to be the first Francophone television director of Radio-Canada, where he remained until 1964. Despite being a quasi-legendary figure in Canadian film and television history, Racine never worked directly with Shatner again.
The writer of The Butler’s Night Off, Silvio Narizzano, does have some future ties with the young Shatner. He was a producer on the Toronto-based General Motors Theatre anthology television show (the show was broadcast in the US under the name Encounter) in 1955, and thus would have worked with Shatner on the productions of “Billy Budd” and “The Big Leap.” He eventually moved to England, and is best known for directing the classic 1966 film, Georgy Girl.
Of the cast, the only one to ever appear with Shatner again was one his fellow crooks, Willard Sage. Believe it or not, Willard would next work with Shatner in the season 3 episode of Star Trek, “The Empath”, playing the Vian “Thann” who ends up torturing a shirtless (of course) Kirk. I wonder if the two actors spoke about their shared experience on The Butler’s Night Off, or if either of them even remembered it at all.
Sage had a long career in supporting roles on TV, appearing in a number of shows from about 1953 all the way up until his death in 1974 at the age of 51. Although he did not appear with Shatner on anything besides Star Trek, he worked on a lot of shows that also employed Shatner in and around the same time, including Alcoa Theatre, Playhouse 90, Studio One, Goodyear Theatre, Channing, Arrest and Trial, The Outer Limits, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., 12 O’Clock High, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Sixth Sense, and The Rookies.
I found very little information on any of the rest of the cast involved with The Butler’s Night Off. Peter Sturgess does have some credits on IMDb, last appearing in the TV mini-series Anne of Green Gables in 1985. Although he was born in 1913, there is no record of his death, no obituary or date that I could find online. I imagine he’s outside some woman’s window right now, sipping from his flask while planning his next adventure/victim.
As for McGill University, Shatner continued to perform in productions there until his graduation in 1952. I don’t believe he returned to Montreal for any future TV or film appearances…but I will correct if I find out otherwise.
The brilliant students of McGill did vote to rename the University Centre (Student Union) building after him in 1992, but the administrators did not officially recognize the name change as rules prohibited buildings from being named after living people. Still, the students created a sign that hangs inside the building and names it as the “William Shatner University Centre.” And the University does acknowledge on maps and other literature that the building is “known to students as the Shatner Building.”
Almost 60 years after graduating, Shatner returned to McGill in 2011 to give the commencement speech for that year’s graduating class. The Dean of Arts there introduced Shatner as “the most widely known and celebrated Canadian actor alive today.” Shatner proceeded to tell the students “Don’t be afraid of taking chances, of striking out on paths that are untrod, Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of making an ass of yourself. I do it all the time, and look what I got.”
Watch The Butler’s Night Off at Cinema in Quebec
Shatner at McGill:
This video doesn’t mention Butler’s Night Off or Shatner at all, but a glimpse into the director of the film and his place in Canadian Film and broadcast history.
Shatner’s Toupee blog review – A more narrow study of one aspect of the film, but always quite entertaining with a lot of good pictures.
The Encyclopedia Shatnerica does have a very brief entry (one sentence long) on the film, where the author gives it 2 stars.