SPEAK EASILY definitely works better than it should, but is still brought down by some major problems, the first one being the basic premise itself. The whole plot starts with Keaton’s butler tricking him into thinking he’s received a $750,000 inheritance in an attempt to make him explore the world and it is literally one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard. I get what he’s trying to do, but he’s essentially getting Keaton into trouble with the law by that style of thinking. He even acknowledges this to the head of the school, who just brushes it off assuming that Keaton won’t do anything stupid. Shouldn’t the fact that he left at all be an indication that he’s off to do something different in his life?
The story’s problems do not just end with its set-up, though. For example, when Keaton first meets the troupe, they just take an instant liking to him for almost no reason at all. Durante’s constantly at his defense even when Keaton admits that he didn’t even purchase a ticket because...he listened to two of his jokes. I guess it doesn’t give Durante a reason to hate him really, but all Keaton did was listen to his jokes and hold a baby for one of the cast members and he’s slowing them down from getting to their destination on time by going back for his trunk. I like the idea that they get along so well, but this shouldn’t have been until after they reached their destination and actually had time to get to know each other. There’s also an idea that I wish they would have taken better advantage of in this film. Keaton makes use of his knowledge of Greek history by having the players in the show dance like the Greeks. It’s actually a pretty clever idea that takes advantage of where Keaton’s character comes from, but instead of having that be the reason for the show’s success, it’s his bumbling that causes the show to be a success, which isn’t necessarily bad, but is a real let down from a story perspective.
Keaton himself is half-and-half in terms of his performance. Sometimes he performs pretty well and when he needs to do physical routines throughout, he does still manage to pull them off. However, Keaton often looks out of it and sometimes his performance represents this as well, notably during the drinking scene as well as that stupid dialogue routine at the train station where a guy gives him explanations only to say “but the trouble is.”
The reason SPEAK EASILY actually does kind of work is its supporting cast. There are a lot of talented actors and actresses here who do a very good job at selling what is essentially weak material. Thelma Todd, Edward Brophy, Sidney Toler (my personal favorite Charlie Chan), even Fred Kelsey has a small role. Sometimes the writing can actually be decent as well. For example, I like that when Keaton is getting tricked by Todd, Ruth Selwyn’s character actually sees through this and realizes that Keaton doesn’t realize what’s going on, rather than go for the conventional misunderstanding plot line. That was actually a pretty good way to do it even if Keaton’s stupidity can get kind of irritating.
Then there’s Jimmy Durante. Ironically, the roles I know Durante most for were two of his final roles: he was Smiler Grogan in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (my favorite movie of all time) and the narrator in Rankin/Bass’s FROSTY THE SNOWMAN. Judging from the few other things I’ve seen him in, I’ve observed that he’s best in small doses. He’s got charm to him and can be funny, but his style of fast talking does not make him a good lead, as he does not entirely have the consistent wit of someone like Groucho Marx. His role here is alright. He and Keaton really do not make all that good of a comedy team like I feel MGM is trying to make them, as both have very different styles of humor and really don’t work off each other that much anyway. They do have some decently funny moments together, though. I liked both of their reactions after seeing Thelma Todd strip down as well as Durante’s reaction when Keaton suggests Todd should dance naked like the Greeks. They’re especially great, though, during the scene where they’re both on stage together with the balloons. Very little talking, just the two bumbling around with props. It shows that they could have worked well as a comedy team had they been more strictly visual as Keaton’s own style was. Also, Durante’s performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” made me miss Cliff Edwards. Not a knock on Durante, but, again, Edwards was a much better sidekick for Keaton.
Once again, the supporting cast does make up for a lot of the film’s problems, though this also makes it feel like there was wasted potential that could have been solved by a better script and a more fitting lead. SPEAK EASILY has some charm to it, but there’s a lot that just keeps feeling like it’s waiting to come out and, unfortunately, it never does.
6 out of 10