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Free and Easy
Elmer with directors Edward Sedgwick, Cecil B. DeMille and Fred Niblo

Free and Easy

1930. M-G-M. Directed by Edward Sedgwick; written by Richard Schayer and Al Boasberg. With Buster Keaton, Trixie Friganza, Anita Page, Robert Montgomery

This depressing movie doesn't just make Buster Keaton talk, it makes him sing! Then it puts him in clown makeup and baggy pants and sets him to dancing in front of a chorus line. Late in the movie, a studio executive informs Buster (playing Iowan Elmer Butts), "Kid, you're a great comedian!" It's ironic to hear this grudging tribute in a movie—and from a studio—that seems determined not to let Buster be funny at all.

There's no need to recap the plot; you've read it here before. Midwesterners inadvertently break into the movies after taking the train out to L.A., crashing the studio gates, being chased around the lot by security guards, disrupting the filming on various sound stages, and encountering a number of real-life actors and directors.

Free and Easy could symbolize everybody's worst fears about talking pictures. About half of the movie consists of long, static scenes where Keaton trades hostile, unfunny "quips" with other characters. There are a couple of ludicrous musical numbers, including one (seen twice!) where about 20 gendarmes in capes and tap shoes twirl around in formation. The whole thing proceeds at a leaden pace, astonishing when contrasted with Keaton's brisk, graceful work of just a few years earlier. Keaton had no gift for verbal comedy (his voice is unexpectedly low and flatly Midwestern), and director Eddie Sedgwick, who co-directed Keaton's silents The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, seems to have forgotten how to structure gags or exploit Buster's physical beauty. To see a major star and major director of the silent era foundering in the world of talkies—in a film celebrating the newly-wired-for-sound Hollywood!—is eerie and disheartening.

Representing the apex of Hollywood success, veteran director Fred Niblo appears "as himself," first trying to keep Elmer off his set, later directing Elmer's debut picture. Niblo paces around his set, shouting orders, checking with technicians, huddling with actors. He looks like the king of M-G-M. Niblo was a major director in the 20s—he directed Valentino, Fairbanks, and Garbo, as well as the spectacular 1926 Ben-Hur. He made no movies after 1932, another casualty of the sound era. We also see Lionel Barrymore directing a scene, and Cecil B. deMille talking with cronies about who to cast in his next picture (as the others suggest Garbo, Talmadge, Crawford and Shearer, deMille remarks about each, "Charming girl, charming." No wonder his career lasted so long.).

Well, I don't claim that Free and Easy—the first talkie for most of the people associated with it—consciously predicts the end of careers and of a certain kind of visual comedy. On the surface, it boosts Hollywood as enthusiastically as does Show People or Merton of the Movies. But I don't think it's just hindsight that makes Free and Easy look like an ominous development. Anyone who loved Buster Keaton in the teens and 20s must have been shocked to see this stolid, unfunny little man utterly buried in a movie that pays lips service to his talent. He just stands there looking glum while an M-G-M producer assures him, "You're gonna be a big movie star some day!"



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein