Musical Monday: Free and Easy (1930)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Free and Easy (1930) – Musical #650

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Edward Sedgwick

Starring:
Buster Keaton, Anita Page, Robert Montgomery, Trixie Friganza, Edgar Dearing, Edward Brophy (uncredited), Lottice Howell (uncredited), Doris McMahon (uncredited)
Themselves: Fred Niblo, Gwen Lee, John Miljan, Lionel Barrymore, William Haines, William Collier Sr., Dorothy Sebastian, Jackie Coogan, Karl Dane, David Burton, Cecil B. DeMille, Joseph Farnham, Arthur Lange, Theodore Lorch

Plot:
Elvira Plunkett (Page) is Miss Gopher City Kansas after winning a beauty contest. The award sends her to Hollywood with her mother (Friganza) and manager Elmer Butts (Keaton) to become a star. While in Hollywood, Elmer tries to get a screentest for Elvira and himself. Meanwhile, though Elmer is in love with Elvira, she falls for movie star Larry Mitchell (Montgomery).

Trivia:
• Buster Keaton’s first talkie was an appearance in the “Hollywood Revue of 1929” (but did not speak). This was his first starring role in a feature film talkie.
• A Spanish version of this film was made called Estrellados (1930), starring Buster Keaton, Raquel Torres and Don Alvarado.
• Several Hollywood figures appear as themselves and was supposed to be similar to “The Hollywood Revue of 1929” with the cameos, according to Keaton biographer James L. Neibaur. Appearances include:
– Director Fred Niblo
– Actress Gwen Lee
– Actor John Miljan
– Actor Lionel Barrymore
– Actor William Haines
– Actor William Collier Sr.
– Actress Dorothy Sebastian
– Actor Karl Dane
– Director David Burton
– Director Cecil B. DeMille
– Writer Joseph Farnham
– Composer Arthur Lange
– Actor Theodore Lorch
• Remade as Pick a Star (1937) starring Jack Haley, Rosina Lawrence and Patsy Kelly.

Buster Keaton and Anita Paige in “Free and Easy”

Robert Montgomery and Anita Paige in “Free and Easy”

Highlights:
• Buster Keaton singing
• The film star cameos

Notable Songs:
• “It Must be You” performed by Robert Montgomery and Lottice Howell
• “Oh King, Oh Queen” performed by Buster Keaton and Trixie Friganz
• “The Free And Easy” performed by Buster Keaton and Doris McMahon

Trixie Friganza and Buster Keaton

My review:
If you know nothing about Buster Keaton, and his career “Free and Easy” (1930) is a relatively pleasant way to pass an hour and a half.

But if you are familiar with Keaton’s talent and career (especially before he gave up his independence and went to MGM), it’s rather depressing.

“Free and Easy” (1930) is what people today call “meta” – a Hollywood film about Hollywood. As the manager of Elvira (Anita Paige), Elmer Butts (Buster Keaton) travels from Kansas to Hollywood after Elvira wins a beauty contest. The two try to break into Hollywood and meet various real-life actors and directors on the studio lot. Elvira falls in love with famous actor Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery) while Elmer and Elvira’s mother (Trixie Friganza) become unexpected movie stars.

In his silent films, Buster Keaton is often behind the eight ball: He usually isn’t as rich, tall or successful as his male antagonists. Despite his character’s shortcomings, Keaton is always the hero and usually gets the girl at the end of the story.

But in his first leading role in a talking picture, Keaton’s “Free and Easy” character may be the lead character, but he is not the hero. As Elmer Butts, Keaton is pathetic and bumbling, which is never what his characters were in his earlier films. He isn’t a hero and doesn’t get the girl. While the movie is alright (particularly in comparison to other early talkies), this is a downgrade in comparison to his earlier films.

At the end of the film, Buster Keaton is dressed in an overexaggerated costume for a musical number that is being shot for a film within the film. Keaton later said that he thought the clown makeup was the most ridiculous thing he had ever done, according to the book Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy by Imogen Sara Smith. The costume is padded with fake muscles, which is silly since Keaton was actually very athletic. In the same scene, Keaton was put on strings like he’s a marionette puppet. His biographer said the puppet scene was similar to how Keaton was being treated by MGM. The issue here wasn’t necessarily talkies, it was that Keaton had given up his independence to work for MGM and had little say in his pictures anymore. Keaton was actually interested in sound films, advocating for “Spite Marriage” (1929) to be a talkie picture. He realized that talkies were the future of films, according to biographer James L. Neibaur.

While it’s sad to see what became of Buster Keaton’s career, seeing Keaton in a musical actually cements what we all knew: He really could do it all.

While there are only a handful of musical numbers in “Free and Easy,” we get to see Keaton sing and dance – and he does it pretty well too! Even in the ridiculous oversized jodhpurs and clown make-up, Keaton skillfully dances in the finale and may know the dance steps better than the other dancers.

Robert Montgomery supposedly sings too, though because of the high range he sang in, I suspected he was dubbed. However, I couldn’t find anything to the contrary.

While “Free and Easy” is an interesting look at early sound and fairly entertaining, I found it all downright sad. Buster Keaton’s sad clown character seemingly paralleled his real life. But I won’t deny that I loved seeing him sing and dance.

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