Where even to begin with this one? I guess let’s start with Keaton’s voice, because that was the biggest question even back then. Keaton had very clear diction and a pleasant baritone voice that isn’t too out of place, though it does make him almost sound a bit too old (hence why I think his voice was much more fitting starting in the 1940’s). Unfortunately, Keaton often feels out of his element due to a constant reliance on dialogue, which I will talk more about later.
The film literally just throws us into it as the film begins at the train station, with no preceding scenes of what their town looks like or even how Keaton was able to secure the tickets on the train. Anita Page’s character here is more likable than Dorothy Sebastian’s character in SPITE MARRIAGE in that she’s not too cruel, but don’t worry. They make up for that with the character of Ma Plunkett, an overall cantankerous and annoying character who treats Keaton like dirt. In her defense, though, she’s not the only one. Half of the characters in this either don’t acknowledge him at all or simply tell him to get lost. The male romantic lead is dull and just as unlikable as Lionel in SPITE MARRIAGE, except that he actually gets the girl in the end, anyway.
The over-reliance on dialogue here is a large problem. Unlike in Laurel and Hardy’s UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE, where the dialogue was a bit forced at the beginning but otherwise felt more like the kind of physical comedy I’d expect, here it’s reversed: there’s some physical comedy, but it does feel like they’re trying to take advantage of The Marx Brothers’ success and make a dialogue-heavy comedy. That’s not to say that the material as written is necessarily bad; the dialogue writer was Al Boasberg, who also later worked on A NIGHT AT THE OPERA as well as dialogue-heavy radio programs such as THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM. The problem is that, while Keaton has a fine voice for sound and can be clearly understood, he does not have the delivery of the Marx Brothers or even the Three Stooges. When I was watching that scene where Keaton was trying to memorize that line for the director, I kept thinking how much better it would be if Curly Howard were in this role rather than Keaton, something I feel I’ll be thinking much more in the future. It’s dialogue that fits that character and can be kind of clever with a Stooge in the role, but with Keaton it comes off as awkward and unnatural, because he is strictly a visual comic who is out of character, not to mention the director gives him the wrong cue anyway. I can only imagine how the Spanish version of this scene plays out (shudders).
Larry, of course, gets Keaton out of his way by tricking him into a position as a chauffeur and this is how Keaton finds out about what goes on in the home. Much like in SPITE MARRIAGE, it’s nice to see Keaton stand up for Elvira and knock out Larry, but it’s completely ruined the next moment when they start bonding and the film tries to make you feel bad for Larry, but you can’t because you’re too busy feeling bad for Keaton. I didn’t want to see Larry and Elvira get together at the end. Even though he felt bad, the film gave me no reason to want to see them get together at the end. The only nice things he does are getting two chances for Keaton to become an actor instead of Elvira. Outside of this irony, there’s also the irony that Keaton’s character is suddenly a better actor with a ton of lines and in one of the major parts as opposed to earlier when he couldn’t deliver one tiny line!
There are a decent amount of musical numbers in this film, especially towards the end. I personally do think MGM was the best when it came to musicals, but here the numbers are often flat and limited in scope, probably due to the limitations of sound at the time, so it gets pretty boring. Even the numbers with Keaton, which should be the highlight especially considering the context of the crew’s enjoyment of it in the film, just come off as somewhat spiritless, partly due to an unfunny recurring gag where the characters are constantly whispering to each other.
Then there’s the ending. There is a lot wrong with this ending. First, we have no reason to want to see Larry and Elvira get together anyway. Second, the director tells Keaton to end with some sort of visual gag and yet Keaton just stands there and does nothing. Third, Keaton is not Charlie Chaplin! For that matter, even Charlie Chaplin would not have this kind of ending; as metaldams mentioned, with him, there’d be a sense of hope, but here it’s literally a case of “Larry wins, Elmer loses,” and nothing else. Yes, Keaton gets a contract, but can’t you imagine how awkward his and Larry’s further interactions would be like, especially since they’re both under contract to the same studio?
Ok, so is there anything good about this film? Well, to his credit, Keaton can still take a pretty good fall that usually made me laugh the few times he had to do so. As few visual routines as there are, they mostly play out alright, especially when Keaton’s running around the set earlier in the film. In addition, as small as his role is, Edward Brophy once again does pretty well playing his part. Much like Edgar Kennedy, Brophy is really good in just about anything he appears in, even if the film itself is awful. Unfortunately, that’s all the positives I can think of with this film. If you’re curious to see any Keaton sound films, this is definitely one to stay away from. Harold Lloyd later did a somewhat similar plot with MOVIE CRAZY, a far better effort compared to FREE AND EASY, so I’d recommend watching that film instead.
2 out of 10