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Author Topic: Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton  (Read 218 times)

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Offline metaldams

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Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton
« on: December 22, 2017, 09:17:32 PM »
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  •       "What is this shit?" In 1970, Greil Marcus, in one of the more famous Rolling Stone magazine reviews, opened with that line for his review of Bob Dylan's much maligned SELF PORTRAIT album.  I shall do the same here for FREE AND EASY.  While a film that holds interest if you're an old Hollywood film buff like I am, as a Keaton vehicle, this is easily the worst film we've discussed up to this point by a country mile.  There are two main problems with this film - MGM, and the Elmer character.

          Part of the problem is FREE AND EASY is a MGM film, so much so that it seems to be a MGM vanity project more than a Buster Keaton film at times.  The film takes place on the back lot of MGM, so we have cameos from Jackie Coogan, William Haines, Cecil B. DeMile, Lionel Barrymore, Karl Dane....basically just to brag about how many stars they have.  There is one scene where Keaton is being chased through the MGM back lot by a security guard that has a lot of potential.  You'd think there'd be room for plenty of creative gags here, but instead, just as the chase is building steam, we have to stop for a moment to highlight some scene showcasing another MGM personality.  The worst is the DeMile scene.  Basically just an excuse to name check as many MGM starlets as possible on DeMile's part while Keaton meekly tries to pitch in the film's leading lady he's managing instead of the starlets DeMile is name checking.

          Then there is the Elmer character.  Completely incompetent, such as the scene with DeMile when he's trying to get his attention about the actress he manages, his complete innocence with women (see the yarn he spins to the leading man character midway through the film, or his inability to deliver the line, "Oh woe is me, the queen has swoon."  No physical gags are milked, but this line is, constantly.  Now, this gag would work wth a comedian getting frustrated with high string reactions like Curly Howard or Lou Costello and better straight man than real life MGM director Fred Niblo (gotta pitch that studio prestige, after all), but Keaton's style is too dead pan for this verbal patter.  Really, nothing about the Elmer character is crafty like classic Keaton, and the guy just gets humiliated from the onset of the film, starting with the way the leading lady's mother berates him the whole time.

          What does work in FREE AND EASY?  Simple, any part where Keaton is acting in an MGM production (he eventually becomes an actor in the movie), and does not have to play the Elmer character.  Here, Keaton plays some light stage comedy quite well.  The King and Queen banter where they whisper God knows what obscenities to each other (one of those cases where the viewer can use their imagination) is well timed, and the musical bit Keaton does with the young girl in the hula skirt is a good light comic moment.  Keaton's singing voice and delivery has a Johnny Cash feel to it, though not quite as deep as Cash.  Still, Keaton actually does light musical comedy well, and it would be nice to incorporate this kind of thing in a talking film within the confines of a actual Keaton comedy.  Unfortunately, we don't get that.

          A few more notes.  The beginning of the film has a few delay gags before Keaton speaks, no doubt building up audience participation as to what Keaton sounds like.  The romance between the leading lady and leading man is incredibly unbelievable.  The leading man turns into a one night stand kind of guy trying to bed the leading lady into an aw shucks Kansas innocent  who falls madly in love with her at the drop of a hat.  It's completely unbelievable.  (Spoiler alert). Of course, they do get together at the end, due to incompetent Elmer not being able to express himself properly to her, and they aim  for a Chaplinesque sad ending and fail miserably.  With Chaplin, there is a tinge of hope yet sadness at the same time...like real life.  This ending is just cruel, and the shot of Keaton in clown make up sad as he doesn't get the girl is the worst Keaton ending ever and a low point.

          A low rating, and would be even lower if not for the fact I find the film bizarrely fascinating.  The MGM stuff going forward, while not great, is mostly better than this.

    4/10

    Offline Tony Bensley

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    Re: Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #1 on: December 23, 2017, 10:08:19 AM »
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  • While I haven't viewed this one in awhile, I believe your review is spot on. 

    Curiously, Buster Keaton's early to mid '30s MGM features were reportedly bigger at the box office than his '20s silents, which are mostly classics today.  This would later repeat itself with Laurel & Hardy's '40s 20th Century Fox / MGM Features out grossing their mostly superior '30s Hal Roach Features.

    CHEERS!  [pie]

    Offline metaldams

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    Re: Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #2 on: December 23, 2017, 10:51:35 AM »
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  • While I haven't viewed this one in awhile, I believe your review is spot on. 

    Curiously, Buster Keaton's early to mid '30s MGM features were reportedly bigger at the box office than his '20s silents, which are mostly classics today.  This would later repeat itself with Laurel & Hardy's '40s 20th Century Fox / MGM Features out grossing their mostly superior '30s Hal Roach Features.

    CHEERS!  [pie]

    It's absolutely true the MGM films were Keaton's highest grossing films.  I believe SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, directed by none other than Jules White, being the biggest money maker.  Art and commerce do not always align.

    Since there seems to be enough interest, I am going to continue the Laurel and Hardy reviews when we are done with Keaton, but I will briefly say the Fox films, while not on the level of Roach, are enjoyable enough from what I remember and have had a bit of a critical acceptance once they became available on DVD.  The two MGM films, especially the boy king one....(shudders).  Been years since I've seen any of those films, saving my next viewing for when I review them.

    Offline Umbrella Sam

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    Re: Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #3 on: December 23, 2017, 11:34:45 AM »
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  • 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

    Offline metaldams

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    Re: Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #4 on: December 26, 2017, 04:09:05 PM »
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  • Quick observation - I watched LIMELIGHT today, a film Buster has a brief role twenty two years after FREE AND EASY.  Literally laughed more the first two minutes at his lines and delivery there than I did the entire 90 plus minutes of FREE AND EASY.  MGM dropped the ball.

    Offline Tony Bensley

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    Re: Free and Easy (1930) - Buster Keaton
    « Reply #5 on: December 26, 2017, 04:44:01 PM »
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  • Quick observation - I watched LIMELIGHT today, a film Buster has a brief role twenty two years after FREE AND EASY.  Literally laughed more the first two minutes at his lines and delivery there than I did the entire 90 plus minutes of FREE AND EASY.  MGM dropped the ball.
    Regarding Buster's LIMELIGHT (1952) appearance, there was reportedly even more of him that ended up on the cutting room floor, because Chaplin felt Keaton's performance was overshadowing his own, or so the story goes!

    Perhaps FREE AND EASY should have been titled UNFREE AND QUEASY instead?  :P

    CHEERS! [pie]