Cast & Crew
Elmer Butts, the befuddled manager of Elvira, a Kansas beauty contest winner, is obliged to take her to Hollywood and get her a break in the movies. At a typical Grauman's Chinese premiere, they are confronted with screen celebrities. Later, Elmer crashes the studio gate, allowing a comic chase through sound stages where various players are working, including Lionel Barrymore, Karl Dane, and Dorothy Sebastian. Ultimately, he gets a job as an extra, causing various amusing complications. Elvira falls in love with Larry, a screen hero, while Elmer is awarded a studio contract and appears in the musical comedy finale, "Free and Easy."
William Collier Sr.
Cecil B. De Mille
Fred E. Ahlert
William Le Vanway
Karl E. Zint
Free and Easy
Keaton had appeared in the all-talkie musical extravaganza The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) but did not speak; he only performed his parody of the dance of Salome. It would be five months before Keaton would be allowed to address his public. In the meantime, Hollywood went through a phase of inserting musical numbers into everything, even melodramas like Cecil B. DeMille's Dynamite (1929). Keaton's new movie would be given the same treatment. MGM's house magazine The Distributor wrote during the picture's production, "The new Keaton in pictures will permit full play to the dialogue, singing and dancing talents which make him a stage winner."
Keaton's character was also changed at this point. Why it was done is still a point of contention, although there is a suggestion that Keaton's Kansas-accented baritone voice led MGM to think audiences would take Keaton as rural and unsophisticated. Up until this point, most of Keaton's comedy focused on the clever way his character overcame problems that seemed to dwarf him. With the beginning of his sound career until he dropped out of starring roles at MGM three years later, Keaton would play just another hapless boob stumbling into one embarrassing scrape after another.
MGM must have felt this was a winning formula as they poured almost a half-million dollars into Free and Easy, gave Keaton Anita Page, the star of the Academy Award-winning The Broadway Melody (1929) as love interest, as well as up-and-coming star Robert Montgomery as rival, and a large number of other MGM celebrities in cameos. The plot also had great potential for Keaton's comic persona since he was playing a character running loose on the sets of MGM (where he had been a silent star); in fact, the working title had been On the Set.
What appears on screen, however, never takes advantage of the situation's possibilities, the only Keaton highlights being his muddling of the line "the queen swooned" and his warbling of the movie's title song. However, Free and Easy does provide an interesting picture of the MGM lot during the same period of time covered in the later classic Singin' in the Rain (1952). One scene that leaves an eerie aftertaste has Keaton running into director Cecil B. DeMille just as DeMille mentions actress Gloria Swanson. Twenty years later all three would appear in Sunset Boulevard (1950) with Keaton one of a group of silent-film actors referred to by William Holden as "waxworks."
Free and Easy opened to generally negative reviews with Robert E. Sherwood in Film Daily remarking that, "Buster Keaton, trying to imitate a standard musical comedy clown, is no longer Buster Keaton and no longer funny." However, audiences, perhaps drawn by Keaton's co-stars or the novelty of hearing him speak, made Free and Easy a hit, in fact, a bigger hit than most of his now famous silent films. With such a verdict from the public, MGM had little choice but to order more of the same and the Keaton of The General (1927) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) was locked up in the studio vaults with the rest of the now-useless silent cinema.
Producer/Director: Edward Sedgwick
Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Paul Dickey, Richard Schayer
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Film Editing: William LeVanway
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Fred E. Ahlert, Roy Turk
Cast: Buster Keaton (Elmer), Anita Page (Elvira), Trixie Friganza (Ma), Robert Montgomery (Larry), Fred Niblo (Director Niblo), Edgar Dearing (Officer).
BW-93m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady
Free and Easy
The Buster Keaton Collection
Considered by many cinema's greatest silent clown, Buster Keaton was a consummate practitioner of physical comedy whose career began in vaudeville at the age of three. Wearing trademark slapshoes and big baggy pants identical to his father's, most gags involved pratfalls with his father kicking him across the stage or tossing him into the air. Within a few years of his debut, Keaton was scoring rave reviews which applauded the physical comedy that would come to be so much a part of his film fame. "The dexterity or expertness with which Joe Keaton handles 'Buster' is almost beyond belief of studied 'business.' The boy accomplishes everything attempted naturally, taking a dive into the backdrop that almost any comedy acrobat of more mature years could watch with profit."
(Variety, March 12, 1910).
Keaton found tremendous eloquence in his deadpan style with alert and expressive eyes, lithe acrobat's body and an unforgettable air of grace described by critic James Agee as "a fine, still and dreamlike beauty." The films in this collection mark a peak in his popularity and glow with Keaton's unique and timeless style which combines very funny comedy with the ability to move an audience to tears.
"We are delighted to be collaborating once again with our partners at Turner Classic Movies to present another collection of silent rarities from the unparalleled Warner Bros. Pictures vaults," said George Feltenstein, WHV's Senior Vice President Classic Catalog. "As with last year's highly praised Lon Chaney Collection, this new Buster Keaton collection contains films which hold a very special place in cinema history, and we are proud to join with TCM to bring these crown jewels from the Warner library to DVD collectors everywhere."
Details of The Buster Keaton Collection Films
The Cameraman - After becoming infatuated with a pretty office worker, Keaton sets out to become a newsreel cameraman in order to be closer to his dream girl. Keaton's first film for MGM, made in 1928, is considered one of his funniest masterworks and offers up a feast of visual gags. The newly remastered DVD includes a new score by Arthur Barrow.
Spite Marriage - In this 1929 silent laugh-filled classic, Keaton stars as Elmer, a man madly in love with stage star Trilbey Drew. When Trilbey's boyfriend gets engaged to another woman, she marries Elmer in a desperate attempt to get even. This was Keaton's final silent comedy, and is presented here with its original Vitaphone music score.
Free and Easy - In Keaton's first talkie, he stars as an agent to beauty contest winner Elvira Plunkett. When Elvira decides to try her luck in Hollywood, Elmer goes along to help and the two soon find themselves falling in love. Chaos ensues when the couple must contend with Elvira's disapproving mother and a handsome movie star, who also has his sights set on the lovely Elvira. This 1930 classic is highlighted by guest appearances from a host of other MGM stars of the era including Robert Montgomery and Lionel Barrymore.
DVD Special Features Include:
- Legendary filmmaker Kevin Brownlow's all-new documentary So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM (produced especially for this DVD release). This unforgettable documentary chronicles the comedian's MGM period, and features fascinating, rare footage including archival interviews with the master himself
- Photo montages from the two silent films
- Cameraman commentary by Glenn Mitchell, author of A-Z of Silent Film Comedy: An Illustrated Companion
- Spite Marriage commentary by John Bengston, author of "Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton and Jeffrey Vance, author of Buster Keaton Remembered"
The Buster Keaton Collection
Free and Easy was also shot in a Spanish-language version, Estrellados. For a version released in France in 1931, the English dialogue was replaced with intertitles in French and English.