June 16, 2016
Free and Easy – US, 1930
You can see the nervous, shaking hands of Hollywood all over Edward Sedgwick’s 1930 film Free and Easy. Here is a film starring Buster Keaton, an established star, that plays more like a trial run for an actor that a studio is of two minds about. It is as if they were conducting a test to determine whether audiences would still find him funny now that they could hear his voice, root for him to get the girl at a time when he was somewhat older, and ultimately continue to financially support his films in post-Jazz Singer Hollywood. If this was indeed their motivation, they should have chosen a much better test.
Free and Easy finds Keaton playing Elmer Butts, the clumsy, yet sweet-natured agent of a local pageant winner named Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page), who is on her way to California to try to make a name for herself in Hollywood. Accompanying them is Elvira’s overbearing and obnoxious mother (Trixie Friganza) because practically every comedy of this sort required a mother to be loud, rude, and controlling. The role is a cliché, and no attempt is made to establish a character or explain her background. There’s not even the obligatory, “It’s my job to protect you now that your father is gone,” which would have at least established a motivation. Instead, we get a character whose dominating personality exists solely for comic purposes, yet provides few, if any, laughs at all.
On the train to California, mother and daughter meet a famous actor named Larry Mitchell, played by Robert Montgomery. We know he’s famous because Elvira finds his picture in one of the Hollywood magazines of the time. The three of them are soon separated, but somehow we just know they’ll be reunited. After all, the genre calls for him to be instrumental in getting Elvira her first big break. In a bit of a surprise, he has a surprise hand in getting Elmer an audition. Unfortunately, Elmer proves himself to have little screen presence, almost no comic timing, and extreme difficulty understanding even the most basic directions from director Lionel Barrymore – that is, until it is cinematically convenient that he do so.
If is often said that slapstick comedies were collections of various gags fit nicely into the most basic of plots. For example, a boy’s pursuit of a girl could contain a party scene, a training scene, a big speech, and a daring rescue, with only one of two of them being truly essential to the plot, and in many ways, Free and Easy resembles such early slapstick films. There’s a long scene involving Elmer’s attempts to get onto a Hollywood lot that does not serve any narrative purpose, and the film’s final act is a long song and dance number whose only reason for existing seems to be to prove to audiences that Buster Keaton could sing and dance, a point at odds with its earlier contention that he couldn’t.
In between these scenes, the film struggles both narratively and comically. While it includes a few interesting and tender moments between Elmer and Elvira, it never establishes much of a narrative arc, relying instead on brief appearances by popular Hollywood figures such as director Fred Niblo, Gwen Lee, John Miljan, Karl Dane, Jackie Coogan, and Cecil B. DeMille, as well as impressive set pieces on MGM’s Hollywood lot. Audiences in 1930 likely enjoyed seeing such an array of figures in the same movie, and I can imagine them pointing to the screen each time someone they recognized appeared. However, removed from 1930s Hollywood, the scenes have little purpose. Worse than that, they slow the film down and rob it of time that could have been used to advance the storylines involving Elmer, Elvira, and Larry. In fact, I’d venture to say that at least half of Free and Easy is comprised of scenes from “other films,” including most of the film’s big finale. So, while the film’s final moments are filled with wonder, fancy footwork, and impressive effects for the time, none of them is truly essential to the plot.
The film has much bigger problems, however. It is perfectly understandable that MGM would have wanted to showcase their newly-built studio and demonstrate just what could be created on it. One wonders, then, why they didn’t just make Free and Easy a musical. Why couldn’t Elmer have sung about his love for Elvira, or Elvira’s mother rhapsodize about men and how important it was to keep them away from her daughter? Why wasn’t Larry given a song in which he explained his change of heart? Such moments would have made much more sense than a pre-code song about a fake king and queen.
And then there’s the direction. What can you say about a film in which takes that should have ended on the cutting-room floor made it into the final product? Were the other takes so much worse that Sedgwick just threw up his arms and moved on to the next scene? This sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense. For the first half of the film, Keaton’s timing is just off. He seems a step behind the cast members, as if he was giving the audience time to laugh or trying to build up to a particular look or emotion. Whatever the reason, the result is awkward, and many scenes have an amateurish feel to them. A good director – or one with more power – should have been able to fix this. A good director – or a better screenwriter – would have known how to use Keaton properly. Here, no one seems to know how to film slapstick or build to comic moments, and scenes start and stop without any real purpose or reward for the audience. Many seem intended to be funny, yet they are more likely to produce stone-faced expressions and moments of utter silence.
Unfortunately, this was the fate of many comedians who tried to make the transition from silent comedy to talking films. They saw their power behind the camera, as well as their studio’s confidence in them, wane significantly. New directors came in, and many producers began emphasizing spectacle over plot. Movies simply had to move faster and be visually spectacular. Keaton’s work toward the end of Free and Easy demonstrate his ability to adapt and excel in the new medium; the first half does not. It’s inexplicable, and Keaton deserved better. (on DVD as part of TCM’s Buster Keaton Collection)
*The film was an enormous hit and remade twice, first in 1937 as Pick a Star and then in 1945 as Abbott and Costello in Hollywood.
*TCM’s Buster Keaton Collection appears to be out of print.