Free & Easy is a 1930’s film, kind of a musical comedy, directed by Edward Sedgwick and starring Buster Keaton, Robert Montgomery, Anita Page and Trixie Friganza. It was Buster Keaton first talking picture and, unfortunately, it didn’t have a big success, and it’s not one of his most well-known films. In fact, his last success was The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick, 1928). However, I have to admit that Free & Easy is one of my very favourite Buster Keaton’s films. I have seen it so many times and I never get tired of it. It’s just a very underrated film that deserves to be better-known. For the very first Buster Keaton Blogaton hosted by Silent-Ology, I’m going to share my love for this film. If you haven’t seen it, I hope my text will make you want to see it and if you have seen it, but didn’t like it, I hope you’ll give it another try!
In Free & Easy, Buster Keaton plays the part of Elmer Butts, Miss Gopher City’s manager. Miss Gopher City’s name is Elvira Plunkett (played by the lovely Anita Page). Elmer, Elvira and her mother (who doesn’t like Elmer very much) are going to Hollywood to make Elvira a star. On the train, they meet the famous movie star Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery). He invites them to his film premiere and then invites Elvira and her mother to come visit the studio where he works. Here, they meet movie director Fred Niblo and Ma Plunckett only wishes he’ll make her dear Elvira a big movie star. However, things turn out differently. As a result, Elmer and Ma Plunckett will be part of the film, but not Elvira. She doesn’t mind because she feels like acting is not for her. Larry and Elvira will fall in love together, which is something difficult for Elmer who is also in love with Elvira.
There are many reasons why I love this film. One of them is the very interesting casting. At first, there is our Buster Keaton in his first talking picture. Some people say he is not funny anymore when he talks. I can agree that he is less funny than in some of his early silent films but, for me, he remains amusing and unforgettable. If the talking pictures industry and the public would have given him a chance, he could have continued his career with the same success he had during the silent film eras. Then, Anita Page plays the role of Elvira Plunkett. Anita Page was one of the big stars of the beginning of the talkies. In Free & Easy, she is just sweet. Trixie Friganza who plays the part of Ma Plunkett is not a very famous actress, but she is a great surprise in this film. She was a great character actress, funny, and with a strong personality. It is interesting to see Robert Montgomery in this type of film knowing that, about ten-fifteen years later he will play in some noirs such as Rage in Heaven or Lady in the Lake (that he also directed). These are the main actors of the film. But what’s even more interesting in this casting are the cameos by great Hollywood personality: Fred Niblo, William Haines, Lyonel Barrymore, Cecil B. DeMille, Dorothy Sebastian, Jackie Coogan, Karl Dane and more. It’s nice too see all these personalities together in the same picture. A game you can do when you watch this film is to find out as many Hollywood stars of the 20’s 30’s as you can!
Of course, as I said, this was Buster Keaton first talking picture. In my opinion, he did it well. A very memorable moment is when he sings Free & Easy, the theme song of the film. I mean, what a treat to see Buster sings and dances! And he does it well, especially the dancing because we know that Buster Keaton was, at first, an actor of gesture, more than an actor of voice. However, his singing voice (and also his talking voice) is quite convincing and fits the character perfectly. As I said in the beginning of this text, this film is kind of a musical comedy. Let me explain that: it is, at first, a comedy, but “the movie in the movie”, the one Elmer Butts and Ma Plunkett are starring in, is a musical. However, there are not many songs. I think we should take the occasion to watch the Free & Easy song’s clip. That’s worth watching, believe me.
Talking pictures mean screenplay, and screenplay mean lines and dialogues. This is another aspect of the film I liked and that really makes me laugh at some points. Because the silent film era was coming to an end, Buster Keaton had to make the audience laugh by talking and not only by moving. There are some quotes in this film that I really love. Some of them are said by Buster Keaton, some other not, but whoever says them, the emotion is always convincing. Buster can talk with his voice, but also with his eyes, which is something important. Here are some examples of my favourite lines of the film:
1- Elmer: “Oh woe is me, the sqween has quooned.”
2- Ma Plunkett: “I never wanna see your face again, never!”
3- Elmer Butts: “Nice day…
Train Conductor: – Is it?
Elmer Butts:- No, I guess it’s not so good…”
4- Jackie Coogan: “And I want to thank Mr. Wright for having this opening, it’s such an opportune time, because I don’t have any school tomorrow.
5- William Haines: Sorry, I broke my autograph…
6- Ma: “Oh, I’m ashamed to show my face!
Elmer: – I don’t blame you….
Ma: – What’s that?!
Elmer: – Oh! I don’t blame you for being a little upset!”
Another thing I like about Buster Keaton in Free & Easy is the great chemistry he has with Anita Page. They are just so lovely together and we wish Elvira would understand that Elmer loves her, because that’s one of her imperfections: she is not very clever. Buster Keaton and Trixie Friganza also make a great pair of enemies. They hate each other, but we can see a sort of complicity between them as soon as they started acting together in the film. Talking about complicity, one of my favourite moments of the film is when Larry Mitchell and Elmer Butts discover they already knew each other before. They both come from Kansas and Larry lived in the same town Elmer’s aunt lived. Moments like that make us say “It’s a small world!”. Another fun thing about this scene is that Buster Keaton really came from Kansas!
Free & Easy is the kind of movie that, for some persons, sort of has to be seen it two or three times before being truly appreciated. I guess I make an exception to the rule, as it became a favourite after my very first viewing. Buster Keaton still makes me laugh and still gives us a great performance. I would like more people to see this film and understand why I love it so much. This is also one of Buster Keaton’s characters that I love the most. I mean, this Elmer is just the type of man I would like to be friend with. So, if you have nothing to do this weekend, take the occasion to watch or re-watch Free & Easy by saying to yourself that this is a great film.
Thanks to Silent-Ology for hosting this event! Make sure to read the other entries: