November 15, 2018
Speak Easily – U.S., 1932
Thank goodness for Jimmy Durante. This is, of course, an odd way to begin a review of a Buster Keaton movie, but bear this in mind, it is a review of a late Buster Keaton movie, and as fans of his are likely well aware of, his later films were not kind to him. In Edward Sedgwick's Speak Easily, he plays a college professor named Potts (Buster Keaton) who mistakenly believes he has inherited a sizable fortune. The motivation for this deception is this: to teach him how to live, a sentiment that sounds downright noble until you realize that the deception could thrust him into bankruptcy. Eventually, the professor agrees to produce a show on Broadway with his non-existent wealth.
But back to Durante. The multi-talented performer had all the credentials to play James, the head of a traveling revue show, from his superb skills on the piano to his particularly gruff voice. He also had the kind of infectious energy normally seen in someone who’s taken Vivarin and is now on his seventh cup of coffee. He is virtually bouncing off of walls in every scene. His appearance immediately lifts ever scene he is in, and even when the plot fails him, which it frequently does, he carries on as if nothing matters. The camera is rolling, and he is on!
I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast. I don’t mean to imply that their performances are awful. Rather, they are failed by an inconsistent and scattershot script. In one glaring example of the script’s incompetence, a Broadway producer (who shares an uncanny resemblance with Orson Welles) loudly declares Jimmy’s show to be atrocious and Jimmy himself to be entirely devoid of humor. However, there the character is a moment later proclaiming that he is going to produce the show anyway. Then the audience is expected to believe that a traveling theater group whose performances were so loathed that its audience was on their way out the door even before the curtain could begin raising for the curtain call would suddenly command a packed audience on opening night. Perhaps their reputation hadn’t preceded them, but it’s not likely.
Of course, this couldn’t be a Buster Keaton film without there being a love interest, so the film introduces us to Pansy Peets (Ruth Selwyn), a dancer whose style is circa 1850. The two meet when she literally runs into him while traveling to her next gig. Potts is smitten instantly. One would expect therefore for Potts and Pansy (which I just realized sounds a lot like pots and pans) to be given significant screen time together to establish their emotional connection, yet the screenwriter elects to keep them apart, instead introducing a rival for the professor’s affection, a former speakeasy dancer named Eleanor Espere (Thelma Todd). Eleanor is the bad girl. How do we know? She’s willing to strip down to her black negligee during her “audition.” Needless to say, she gets the part.
As a Pre-code film, Speak Easily has more than its fair share of risqué moments, from the professor’s unintended double entendres to Eleanor’s intended ones. There’s also a scene in which the professor finds himself in the ladies’ changing room and one in which he and Eleanor strip down to their evening wear (separately, of course). Yet the film lacks a narrative that would make the jokes worthwhile; instead, they are in service of a story that starts on the wrong foot and never finds a suitable rhythm, an even more egregious crime for a musical.
Two things are at the core of the film’s failure. First is the role of the professor. As written, the professor is either the most socially inept person you’ll ever meet or an undiagnosed sufferer of Asperger’s Syndrome, for he has never heard a sarcastic or idiomatic expression that he understood. This starts out mildly amusing, yet soon wears on you the way that a soft, high-pitch sound eventually become so invasive that it drowns out all other sounds and gives you a throbbing headache. And because Potts never picks up on anyone’s advances, he is unable to do much to develop a relationship with Pansy. He’s something out of a British romance, only he’s the character being forced upon the heroine by a greedy parent.
And it goes without saying that the film is not consistent when it comes to the quality of the show finally put on on a Broadway stage. No, instead of stinking to high heaven, like the performance presented towards the beginning of the film, the cast is suddenly immensely talented, precise in their timing, and utterly embraced by the crowd. The jokes that fell flat earlier in the film abruptly work, the dancing that was earlier criticized is met with thunderous applause, and jokes that are still not funny miraculously begin tickling funny bones everywhere. It’s as if we’ve entered a Bizarro world where up is down and the unamusing is uproarious. Oh, and nothing that goes wrong ever has a consequence. Mistakes equal hits.
One day a film will be made in which a dud remains a dud, a critic doesn’t suddenly become a fan, and bad jokes are consistently met with groans and stunned silence, regardless of when they are said in the picture. Speak Easily is not this film. Instead, it’s a film that starts D.O.A. and only shows intermittent flickers of life. It is failed by a lackluster script and a lead role that is not written to the strength of the superstar playing it. Sadly, this is easily one of Buster Keaton’s worst films. (on DVD from Warner Archives)
1 and a half stars