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Most Buster Keaton fans are aware that the Great Stone Face's career fell to pieces not long after he became part of MGM's firmament of talent. The reasons are painfully obvious. Previously the creator and co-director of his movies, Keaton became part of Irving Thalberg's factory system, where his role was reduced to performing scripts written and directed by other people. MGM gave Keaton some freedom with The Cameraman and Spite Marriage but he soon found himself playing slapstick roles opposite other comics like Cliff Edwards. The worst insult was the overpowering ham Jimmy Durante, a natural spotlight hog. Keaton's drinking problem surely had a lot to do with his troubles, but we prefer to believe that the booze was a symptom of his predicament: if he were free to create, Buster would never have become depressed.
1930's Free and Easy is Keaton's first all-talking picture, and its problems are obvious from the start. The scenario by Richard Schayer, Paul Dickey and Al Boasberg is little more than a concept launch with little or no development. Buster's character is only sort of the leading player, as the center is held by MGM stars Anita Page and Robert Montgomery. The writers manage to find very little of merit in the 'coming to Hollywood to be a star' story.
Kansas girl Elvira and her bossy mother, Ma (Anita Page & Trixie Friganza) board a California-bound train. Their feckless manager Elmer (Keaton) almost misses the train and the women have trouble with their tickets, but they do manage to meet big star Larry (Robert Montgomery), who invites them to his studio when they arrive. Unfairly blamed by Ma for everything that goes wrong, poor Elmer stumbles from sound stage to sound stage accidentally disrupting shoots. He's eventually given a bit role but is a huge disaster, while the same thing happens to Ma, and she proves a natural. Elvira is convinced she has no place in Hollywood, but Larry swears that she'll become a star as well. He invites her to his fancy house one evening to, ah, discuss the matter. Having been demoted to driving for Elvira, Elmer has fallen in love with her but can't find the right opportunity to declare himself. But he's not so dumb that he can't guess what Larry has in mind, and rushes off to rescue the girl of his dreams.
Even with veteran director Edward Sedgwick at the helm Free and Easy refuses to shape up. We get a premiere at Grauman's Chinese but most of the rest of the picture is filmed around the MGM lot, with Buster failing to get through the main gate, etc. The show stops dead several times for musical numbers filmed from one camera position wide and far back. We see several name directors, including Fred Niblo and Cecil B. De Mille. Edward Brophy has a role, and also served as production manager.
Anita Page didn't develop too far beyond the flapper stereotype and isn't very interesting, and Robert Montgomery just stands around smiling in military costumes looking younger than young. Trixie Friganza actually has more interesting business to do than Buster, because she's given an amusing pushy personality. The big audition for both newbies has the stout woman manhandling and roughing up Buster, after several other hopefuls have proven ineffective. Trixie tosses Buster around like a rag doll. Buster is of course excellent as the sad sack victim, but he isn't sympathetic. The pathos just doesn't come.
There aren't many fun in-jokes, although the filming scenes look almost identical to those in Singin' in the Rain. There is also nothing that qualifies as a Keaton-esque mechanical gag. We like Elmer and Keaton handles the dialogue just fine, but translating Keaton's passive, puzzled silent character to the talkies is deadly. When he just sits and talks, he can't use any of his unique skills.
The final musical number tries to up the pathos quotient with Buster playing a woeful clown, the crying on the inside kind. His grotesque clown costume sticks out in all directions, like something for a Russian art exhibit. When Keaton dances, he looks like a stiff animal cracker. It's not pretty, and the attempt at a bittersweet ending falls flatter than flat.
This edition of Free and Easy has a special extra, the film's Spanish-language version, Estrellados.
In 1930 the industry took the attitude that dubbed foreign versions were difficult and wouldn't travel; they instead filmed complete separate foreign versions, using a second camera on the set for some scenes and restaging dialogue scenes with new cast members speaking the appropriate language. This explains why the Spanish version of Drácula has a mix of accents from Mexico to Argentina (as well as a really poor actor or two). In Estrellados Keaton goes through the same exact storyline, playing off Raquel Torres as Elvira and a fellow named Don Alvarado as Larry. The mother is played with equal verve by María Calvo. Further down the cast list is none other than Carlos Villarías, who would soon play the Spanish-language Dracula.
Keaton is now called Canuto Cuadratin and is the same luckless dope. The movie breaks down into three kinds of footage. A very few scenes (possibly the one with C.B. De Mille) look like dupes from the English version. Then we see the same musical numbers as filmed by alternate cameras, far enough away that we can't tell Don Alvarado from Robert Montgomery. This becomes obvious in one number where an acrobat almost misses catching a diving woman, and her head comes really close to splattering on the floor. The exact same action is in the Spanish version, but taken by a camera with a longer lens. All of the English version's scenes are present save for one gag in which Buster wanders into an exterior set where a dynamite charge is set to go off -- a situation which perhaps inspired another gag in Singin' in the Rain.
The dialogue scenes are almost identical, as if Keaton stayed in place while the other leads were swapped out for their Spanish speaking counterparts. Spanish speakers watching the video will be entertained listening to Keaton work his way through the dialogue. Some lines he understands well and rattles off but others sound as if done with a quick phonetic rehearsal. Pronunciation is better than that you'll hear in a Spanish 101 class, but when Buster gets something wrong it's really funny. That said, it's obvious that he wasn't drinking or hung over while doing these scenes. Poor Buster -- 27 years in show biz and the new personality-killing studio policies were really doing him in.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Free and Easy is a very good transfer of elements in excellent shape. The movie still has a softness and a lack of strong contrast, most of which can be chalked up to the film stock of 1930; I'm not sure they'd yet standardized the Academy aspect ratio. Free and Easy and Estrellados are not just for committed Buster Keaton fans -- there's a lot of silent-to-talkie transition history to see in this show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Free and Easy / Estrellados rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.