Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Speak Easily: an MGM talkie Buster Keaton didn't detest!
This is Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's contribution to the Sixth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon - happy to be a part of it!
To begin today's post, we thank Lea Stans of Silent-ology for hosting this and the previous five Buster Keaton Blogathons. Will post the full list of 2020 Buster Blogathon articles tomorrow.
Buster Keaton ranks atop the short list of our all-time favorites who ever appeared in or directed movies at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, so we're thrilled and delighted to contribute.
This, with some trepidation, brings us to one of Buster's dreaded MGM talkies, Speak Easily, arguably the best of the bunch that began with Free and Easy and ended with What! No Beer? (described by Buster as a "100 per cent turkey").
In the promotional posters, Buster's name is first but Durante's face dwarfs Keaton's. Funny, I have a sneaking suspicion who MGM was trying to build up as a new star here! Also notable: the poster describes a naughty love triangle storyline that does not occur in the movie.
The cautionary tale of Buster at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and part of the Keaton legend remains that The Great Stone Face transitioned from independent producer to MGM star and lost all creative control over his films in the process.
Buster was caught between his friends/colleagues - Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd pleaded with their fellow comedy filmmaker NOT to sign with MGM - and his family, as he was married to Natalie Talmadge, sister of Norma Talmadge (Buster's sister-in-law) who was married to Joseph Schenck, whose professional association with Keaton dated back to the comedian's first experiences in movies, working as stock company player, gagman and assistant director for Roscoe Arbuckle at Comique Productions. Joe Schenck's brother Nick was among the head honchos at MGM.
Why Speak Easily’s credits say “A Buster Keaton Production,” we have no clue.
Speak Easily is an MGM feature starring three top comedy talents, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante and Thelma Todd. For the three principal stars, it's a likable albeit second tier piece in their silver screen careers, with The General, Billy Rose's Jumbo, Hips Hips Hooray and the incredibly funny Charley Chase - Thelma Todd 2-reeler The Pip From Pittsburg, among others, representing the top tier.
Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Our Gang and, in two films made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940's, Laurel & Hardy, had their problems with MGM (A Night At The Opera notwithstanding), even though Our Gang and L&H made many of the funniest comedy short subjects ever committed to celluloid, which were produced for MGM release by the Hal Roach Studio a.k.a. The Lot Of Fun.
Marie Dressler was one brilliant comedienne who was not held in check by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.
The larger-than-life actress and comedienne, star of stage and screen, Marie Dressler alternated at MGM between dramas and lightweight comedies co-starring former Mack Sennett Comedies headliner Polly Moran - and is still known for her epic triple-take for the ages in reaction to Jean Harlow that closes George Cukor's dark comedy Dinner At Eight.
MGM's clear preference as the stars of comic films would be leading men and leading ladies who demonstrated a pronounced flair for comedy such as Robert Montgomery, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and (especially) William Powell and Myrna Loy.
One star of MGM features who could be both a leading lady and a quite talented, goofy comedienne was the very funny Marion Davies.
Marion, like Marie Dressler, was not at all averse to broad humor and slapstick and even co-starred with Marie in The Patsy. It's a good bet that Davies was not held back from doing more comedies by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer brass, but by W.R. Hearst, who fancied her as a stately grand dame starring in costume dramas.
Buster Keaton wanted very much to make a talkie with Marie as his co-star and even pitched a western comedy in which the duo would co-star to Irving G. Thalberg. The MGM brass said no. A Buster Keaton - Marion Davies feature would have also had strong comedic possibilities, but Hearst would have no doubt nixed such an idea in less than a New York minute.
The most glaring problem with Speak Easily, and all the Keaton MGMs is the mega-studio's complete and utter inability to grasp the essential Keaton characterization. Why Lawrence Weingarten and other MGM execs in charge of these films thought casting Buster as a dimwit was funny, we'll never know. Perhaps MGM brass concluded that because The General was not a boffo box-office hit, having Buster play an indefatigable and resourceful fellow would mean bad box office. The penchant for turning Buster's intrepid and heroic, albeit slightly absent-minded character into a bumbling, blithering idiot is painful for Buster fans to watch!
In Speak Easily, he plays a professor - and spends much of the film's 80 minute running time acting like a moron. The point comes where it's not funny, as charming and likable an actor as Buster can be. It is also very odd that the script did not use the fact that his character is a professor and presumably a learned and intelligent fellow to drive the storyline. The plots of the Keaton silents - Our Hospitality, The Navigator, Go West, The General and Steamboat Bill. Jr. in particular - were not driven by idiocy by his characters. This tendency is deadly in the MGMs and begins as early as The Cameraman.
The production executive in charge of the Keaton MGM films, Lawrence Weingarten, later the producer of everything from Spencer Tracy - Katharine Hepburn vehicles to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, along with the other execs, proved utterly and completely baffled by Buster Keaton.
Buster would have scoffed at the very idea of his silent features possessing “epic,” “mythic” and “poetic” qualities and insisted he was just trying to make a good picture, no big deal - but this is the area where the MGM films after The Cameraman (and especially the talkies) are sorely lacking. The sense of grandeur and scale is gone. Man against a cyclone. Man against a locomotive. Man against something he doesn’t understand. The settings and situations are scaled down, indoors. Buster is no longer a mere blip in the wide open spaces.
While there is a segment with Buster running around and doing his customary mindboggling stunts at a train station in Speak Easily, he is definitely earthbound. As noted in my review of Parlor, Bedroom and Bath for the first Buster Keaton Blogathon, in the MGM talkies, The Great Stone Face is stuck delivering dialogue as opposed to battling with forces far more powerful than himself. While Buster is a very good actor and his Midwestern sound suits his characters, he is much diminished by this. One wonders if the MGM executives other than Irving Thalberg ever actually watched Our Hospitality, The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr. Even the subsequent low-budget Educational Pictures short subjects as Grand Slam Opera get a little more Buster in the mix!
The storyline of Speak Easily casts Buster as an isolated, lonely and socially awkward college professor who receives a bogus letter stating that he shall receive a substantial inheritance: $750,000 in Great Depression money. Not knowing it's a ruse, the professor instantly opts to take a sabbatical from teaching and see the world. At the train station, Professor Potts by chance runs into a low-rent theatrical troupe and, thinking he's rich, pays for the entire cheesy company to take their cheesy musical review to Broadway! Cross-country hijinx, including aggressive pursuit of the incredibly naive academic by the troupe's gold digging diva/vamp, and a chaotic, disastrous, mishap-packed opening night ensue.
In the cast along with Buster, Jimmy Durante and Thelma Todd are actress Ruth Selwyn (who plays Buster's girlfriend Pansy Peets), columnist-to-be Hedda Hopper in a cameo as the overprotective Mrs. Peets, and character actor Sidney Toler.
Toler, between many successes on the stage and later in movies as the always three steps ahead super-sleuth Charlie Chan, does a fine job in his part as a nameless theatrical director, unendingly vexed by Professor Potts' penchant for jumping onstage at the worst possible times and wreaking holy havoc.
All of the above said, Speak Easily is not a bad movie by any means, has its moments throughout. There are several funny Pre-code bits - at one point Profesor Potts declares "I'll buy companionship" - and many involve Thelma Todd's vamp character.
Buster and Thelma create several very good sequences of physical comedy, most notably a variant on the dragging a drunk woman to bed routine that had previously been a cornerstone of Keaton’s last silent film, Spite Marriage, and would be performed two decades later by Buster and his wife Eleanor at the Cirque Medrano.
And then, can't finish this review without mentioning the topic of Buster co-starring with Jimmy Durante. . .
Buster said of Jimmy Durante's role in this film: "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." Buster and Jimmy are not teamed, but play off each other pretty well; yes, Jimmy is very loud but the two work together and Jimmy does not overpower Buster, the table salt and cayenne pepper contrast notwithstanding. Jimmy went to bat for Buster with MGM brass when Keaton did not show up on the set due to heavy drinking and the two comedians became lifelong friends offscreen.
The most interesting aspect of the film is how its "utter mayhem on stage" climax closely resembles another movie starring showbiz icons under the heading of "Comedians Who Got Screwed By MGM," the Marx Brothers. Watch both as a double bill and the parallels between are clear, right down to the bit in which Harpo swings across the stage, which Buster does in the scene of the Broadway show's disaster-filled opening, in which he ends up, quite unintentionally, as a comedy star and audience favorite. While there's no Margaret Dumont or Sig Ruman in Speak Easily, what the hey, it's funny.
This is not the only instance of something from a Buster Keaton movie turning up in A Night At The Opera, as a brief bit in The Cameraman appears to be the kernel of what would be expanded into the hilarious stateroom sequence of the Marx Brothers classic. Buster couldn't have worked on A Night At The Opera - he was alternating between overseas features and Educational Pictures 2-reelers at the time - and yet, there are a couple of instances of Keaton-esque moments in said film. When MGM re-hired Buster a few years later as a gagman and script doctor, he did, in what couldn’t have even a pleasant experience, work with the Marx Brothers; Groucho in particular did not welcome writers who weren’t named George Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, Harry Ruby or Arthur Sheekman, so this couldn’t have been fun for Buster.
Jimmy's next silver screen appearance at MGM would be in Blondie Of The Follies, a vehicle for one of the very few not named Marie Dressler who starred in funny and successful comedies bearing the MGM brand (not counting films produced by the Hal Roach Studio for MGM release) in the early talkie era - Marion Davies. Durante only has a couple of scenes, but the sweetness and genuine warmth underlying Jimmy's bluster and braggadocio is there - and would be the cornerstone of Schnozzola's comedy through several decades of movies and television.
Wrapping this up with a question. How would the Buster Keaton MGM talkies be evaluated if all his silents except Battling Butler and/or College, were lost films and hadn't been seen since 1928. Whatˇif Our Hospitality, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The General had burned up in the Little Ferry, New Jersey vaults in 1937 (or in the "day the music burned" wipeout of MCA recorded masters in 2008)?
Would Keaton's MGM talkies still be considered to be debacles, horrible wastes of Keaton's talent or regarded as decent 1930's comedies which do not make proper use of The Great Stone Face's acting, directing and filmmaking talents? None of the Keaton MGM talkies are masterpieces, even on par with MGM's William Powell and Myrna Loy comedies, but are any, other than Free and Easy, unwatchable disasters? We'll think about that while preparing to watch Sherlock Jr. after several short subjects produced for MGM release by the Hal Roach Studio, including several of the first tier films of Speak Easily co-star Thelma Todd.