Having seen a majority of Buster Keaton’s silent work (thank you Kino), one of the primary distinctions in his character is that he was never explicitly the Clown. That was a role more suited to Chaplin’s Tramp character, but though some of the emotive waves in Keaton’s character may have resembled Pagliacci on a superficial level, the Boy was rarely, if ever, an object of scorn or mockery. Silly and clumsy like the gamut of silent comedians, yes, but the clown, no. But when Keaton made his talkie debut in Free and Easy, that changes overtly and covertly. This change in power dynamic between audience and performer is primarily why Free and Easy feels like such an odd entry in Keaton’s filmography, even feeling painful.
The film is a very tangential play on the complications of working in Hollywood, with hopeful ingénue Elvira (Anita Page) travelling with her stage mother (Trixie Friganza) and “manager” (Keaton) to make it as a star. Hollywood shenanigans ensue, as Buster appears in various productions on the MGM lot. The film isn’t actually a satire on the Studio System. If anything, it’s a self-congratulatory of “how we manage to churn out film after film without going insane”.
But Buster here feels different. Perhaps as a silent film made during his heyday, this might have worked, but, like a reverse version of The Artist, it’s like a bunch of silent film gags with the volume turned on. It isn’t that Buster is bad, it’s that his material is putrid. Much of his most successful work was with Metro Picture Corporation and United Artists, primarily because they gave Keaton full control (until after The General, that is). Working with MGM, the film seems to have been made around him without really understanding Keaton’s appeal.
So, more often than not, the film doesn’t actually utilize Keaton’s talents as a performer. He can invoke sympathy from an audience in a cute, sad sack way, but instead the film opts to treat Keaton as a stupid character worthy more of pity than sympathy. Keaton’s charm seems to have been drained out of the picture because the clever acrobatics that are in the film don’t feel like his work. They feel like someone who assumes Buster Keaton is every other slapstick star.
His voice, while not unsuited for the talking pictures, is not suited for this talking picture. The script, slim on laughs and slimmer on substance in general, also doesn’t seem to understand Keaton’s sense of comic timing.
But its biggest crime is making Keaton an object of mockery. In an extended sequence, Buster Keaton plays a clown. If I sound like an old man screaming, “Get off my lawn”, forgive me. But Buster Keaton is not a clown.
I think I fell in love with Keaton’s style when I was six or seven years old and I watched Sherlock Jr. In one of the parallel narratives, he plays an absentminded, prone to accidents guy in love with a girl whom he can’t marry. And you feel bad for him. Not as a de facto reaction, but because there’s an element of pathos within that performance, and every other performance Keaton gave. Keaton brought a special kind of sensitivity to the game, a tenderness that was evident in his Stone Face. I feel this is crucial to understand in comparison to someone like Lloyd or Chaplin because those two actors, certainly legendary in their own right, let their facial expressions overtly speak for them. Keaton was far more subtle. Reading his face, how he felt from scene to scene, required as much work as reading the fine print of something by Plath. There’s an extraordinary, irreplaceable honesty, and warmth, and compassion in his face. And he never asked for that kind of reception. He just simply earned it.
In Free and Easy, he’s made to ask, beg, and stoop for that kind of reaction, and it all feels kind of pathetic. (Even more pathetic is watching him struggle through the Spanish language version of the film Estrellados, shot in connection with Free and Easy.) Such clear emotional toying might have worked if the film were better and if the screenplay were worthier of that kind of move, but it is, unfortunately, not. The clearest difference between Keaton entering the sound era and Chaplin doing so is that Chaplin knew how to work the dialogue to his advantage, how to play with that kind of feeling (The Great Dictator, Limelight). Keaton wasn’t given a chance.
It’s depressing to see the Great Stone Face reduced to a joke. There are tiny flourishes of Keaton’s spectacular abilities, but they’re mostly overshadowed by just how terrible the film is. No one is free and easy in this film. Least of all, Buster.