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Buster Keaton - Star of the Month
Remind Me
,Speak Easily

Speak Easily

Throughout most of the 1920's, legendary comic Buster Keaton had his own production company, although the finances were controlled by producer Joseph Schenck (who was married to Keaton's sister-in-law, silent movie star Norma Talmadge). This was the period of Keaton's greatest artistic and commercial success. But in 1928, Schenck folded the company, and advised Keaton to give up independent production and join MGM. Keaton did so, and later said it was "the biggest mistake of my life." For Keaton, whose best ideas were often improvised, losing his tight-knit unit was disorienting, and working from scripts was restrictive. And the problem was compounded when sound came, since his best gags were visual and rarely relied on dialogue.

At MGM, Keaton was placed under the supervision of producer Lawrence Weingarten, who had no understanding of Keaton's kind of comedy. Weingarten and MGM head Louis B. Mayer decided to try to make a team out of Keaton and Jimmy Durante. The two comics, whose styles were vastly different, appeared in three films together: The Passionate Plumber (1932), Speak Easily (1932), and What! No Beer? (1933). Of the three, the only one Keaton had anything good to say about was Speak Easily.

In Speak Easily, Keaton plays a quiet college professor who mistakenly believes he's inherited a fortune. The professor cuts loose, backs a seedy theatrical troupe headed by Durante, and falls in with a hard-drinking gold digger, played by Thelma Todd. A talented comedienne who could hold her own with such comic geniuses as the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and Zasu Pitts, Todd proved an excellent foil for Keaton. And while Keaton's and Durante's styles did not really mesh, Keaton wrote in his autobiography, "He was very good in the one picture we made together that had quality. I think this was because the character he played was very much like the real Jimmy Durante. The picture was Speak Easily, which...had a sound comedy plot."

Durante had great respect for Keaton, and according to Keaton, he proved it in the films they did together. "I could see that MGM was grooming Durante. He knew it too - but he stole no scenes." Durante also proved his loyalty during and after the production of Speak Easily. It was a terrible time in Keaton's life. His marriage to Natalie Talmadge was breaking up, he was drinking heavily, and he either wouldn't show up for work, or would be so hung over that he couldn't function. The production went over budget at least in part because of Keaton's absences and ill health. According to Jhan Robbins' biography of Durante, Inka Dinka Doo, when the film was finished, the stars were expected to appear at a press conference. Durante showed up; Keaton didn't. Durante tried to cover up for Keaton by telling the press that his co-star had a bad cold. But the next day, the studio sent Keaton a telegram firing him. Durante went to Mayer and pleaded with him, managing to get Keaton reinstated. It was only a temporary reprieve. After What! No Beer? Buster Keaton and MGM parted company. Ignominiously, he was re-hired by the studio as a gag writer a few years later. But Keaton was discovered by a new generation in the 1950's, and continued to work in films until his death in 1966.

Todd's tragic and mysterious end came in 1935, when she was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in her car in a closed garage. Her death was ruled a suicide, but it was rumored that she had been murdered on the orders of mobster Lucky Luciano. She was only 30 years old.

Director: Edward Sedgwick
Producer: Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Laurence E. Johnson, from the novel Footlights, by Clarence Budington Kelland
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Editor: William LeVanway
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Buster Keaton (Professor Timoleon Zanders Post), Jimmy Durante (James "Jimmy" Dodge), Ruth Selwyn (Pansy Peets), Thelma Todd (Eleanor Espere), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Peets), William Pawley (Griffo), Sidney Toler (Stage Director).

by Margarita Landazuri



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