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While it is true that SPEAK EASILY doesn't hold a candle to the genius of Keaton's best films, neither is it worthless as some have suggested. Outside pressures (namely MGM and his deteriorating family life) held Keaton back from performing at the inspired level he might have. SPEAK EASILY's main weakness lies in MGM forcing an uninspired pairing of Keaton with a vaudeville comic like Durante. The tension between Buster's physical comedy (which is never allowed to ignite as it once had) and Durante's verbal punning is something that never really works. Keaton's characters in all of the MGM talkies seem, for lack of a better word, dense. The inherent cleverness that Buster showed in his silent work was totally abandoned. Never again would Buster show the bravado, daring and quickness he was famous for. Instead, he would be shoe-horned by MGM into a series of roles as loser, victim and sap. For all those inherent problems, SPEAK EASILY still contains at least two slapstick sequences that prove Keaton could be just as funny in his talkies as he was in his silent work. The 'drunken seduction' with Thelma Todd's gold-digger is very funny. Miss Todd proves herself not only a fine comedienne, but shows excellent chemistry with Keaton. Also, Buster's utter, and totally inadvertent, destruction of the Broadway play during it's opening night performance is hysterical and features some fine stunt gags. Those looking for the sublime genius of THE GENERAL or SHERLOCK JR. will invariably be disappointed. That 'Buster' was long gone by this point in his career. SPEAK EASILY should be viewed as an enjoyable programmer that kept Buster working, if not at his peak, still as a capable gag man and entertainer. Admiring fans with an open mind will find much to enjoy here
Keaton fans, you will not "die a thousand deaths" if you view this.
Nothing Keaton does is bad, if for nothing else then for his presence.
That being said, Buster was a silent start who was best when doing
stuff created by his own mind. By 1932, the silent era was dead and the
studios owned the movies. That Buster Keaton of "Seven Chances" and
"Steamboat Bill Jr." was no more. That could never be recreated.
Times changed, films changed, and Buster adapted. Better this Buster than no Buster.
The story is funny, and there is some amusing slapstick. Buster plays his role well, adds some Buster to it, and is believable as a clueless college professor. Jimmy Durante is larger than life, in a hammy sort of way, but it's a good contrast with Keaton if anything. The movie works, and the closing scenes the show on Broadway is madcap with a modicum of brilliance.
We can ask what if. What if the silent era had never ended? What if Keaton and Arbuckle had not been separated so suddenly? What if the studios had taken over the industry with their formulae? Look, this is a pretty good film. It's not Keaton being tragically reduced to nothing. (Such was never possible! The great ones always adapt.) The tragedy is what happened to Roscoe Arbuckle. What happened to Buster? He hung in there and made people laugh.
Despite what other users have said about this movie, I found it delightful and very funny. Buster Keaton plays a college professor who thinks he has become a rich man. He decides to invest money in a bad show because he likes one of the girls in the show, and he takes the show to Broadway. Buster Keaton has a very nice speaking voice, and this is the first "talkie" of his that I have seen. Of note also in the film is Thelma Todd. She plays a golddigger, but her performance is very funny and holds up today just as well as it did then. The scene where she and Keaton get drunk I found hysterical.
I watched 'Speak Easily' one night and thought it was o.k., but missing something. Maybe Buster Keaton strangely speaking threw me off, or the labored line delivery of a leading lady. The next day I kept thinking about the movie, though. I couldn't get Durante's song out of my head, I kept trying to better remember Thelma Todd's first scene, I considered that maybe Keaton did do some funny falls and physical comedy. The next night I watched a scene with Thelma Todd as a conniving chorus girl trying to impress Buster and Jimmy with her sex appeal. A very funny scene, the actors excellent, their faces, their eyes, their silly expressions. So I watched another scene, their show is opening on Broadway. Buster in his blissful innocence botches every act. Again, I was laughing out loud, appreciating Keaton's clowning and tumbling. So the next night I watched the whole movie again, and this time I see it for the first time: It's Stupendous! It's Sensational! It's Sublime! Three great comedians! Todd dances! Durante sings! Keaton speaks! Sure it ain't poifect...but there's a lot of laughs in this picture.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you're a Keaton fan your eyeballs will not melt in their sockets if
you watch this - it really is not bad. It would be a rather enjoyable
early talkie if it were not for the fact that Buster Keaton's talents
are being wasted in this film. Since I know that by this time (1932)
MGM gave him no creative control and treated him just as a performer, I
can only wonder what the film would have been like if someone had
listened to his ideas. However, at least there are no moments in which
you must look away in embarrassment at what MGM is doing to the man, as
there are in Free and Easy.
The good aspects of this film include Buster getting the girl in the end, unlike in Free and Easy (a real embarrassment of a film). Also Buster shows a real penchant for dialog and verbal comedy, demonstrating that he was not outside his element in talking pictures. Then there are the seduction/morning after scenes with Buster and Thelma Todd. Todd gave the best supporting performance in the cast. What a shame she died so young. Finally there is the ending where Keaton disrupts the show but scores a hit with the audience. It's not the most clever stuff he ever did, but it is funny.
The bad parts of this film include Buster being made to play a straight man to Jimmy Durante, Buster's expressive eyes being hidden behind his pince-nez spectacles, and finally there is the issue of Buster bungling into a happy ending. In his years as an independent filmmaker his character would often start out lost and fumbling around, but he figured things out in the end and came up with resourceful and deliberate solutions.
In the end, I have to wonder why this film really needed Buster Keaton anyways. Lots of comics less talented than Keaton could have been employed to recite the dialog that was written for this script and take a few pratfalls.
There have been a lot of very perceptive comments made by previous
reviewers and I don't have much to add.
I have to agree with those who said it was a rather flat comedy with flashes of wit and charm.
Keaton gives an interesting performance as Professor Post. It seems a bit of a parody on Harold Lloyd, but also a precursor to Danny Kay's professor character. The movie is wise when it centers itself around him, but it seems that the scriptwriter wrote it for Keaton to improvise wildly, only to find Keaton sticking to the script. I imagine there was some tension between him and the director, with Keaton simply giving in and following the director's orders.
Thelma Todd stands out. She lights up the screen and exudes a knowing sophistication that only a few other actresses (Jean Harlow, Mae West and Katherine Hepburn) reached.
Again, I don't think that anybody but Buster Keaton fans will enjoy the movie and only Buster Keaton fans will have a few laughs out of it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Speak Easily" actually isn't as bad as I'd been given beforehand to
expect. True, Jimmy Durante, playing a stand-up (or in his case,
sit-down) comic called 'Jimmy', is basically playing himself, but in
this context it is at least appropriate. True, adorning Buster Keaton
with a fussy pair of pince-nez throughout the entire film deprives him
of his principal means of expression -- his eyes -- but on the other
hand, it establishes the character and does actually suit him: Keaton
in his thirties had always borne a resemblance to a sculpted bronze
bust, and as he administers a professorial stare through his perched
glasses, his features appear more strongly modelled than ever. True,
Keaton is clearly struggling with the 'refined' vocabulary and accents
required for the part -- possibly his most extended piece of vocal
acting -- but in the context of comedy his strained and somewhat
artificial delivery is not out of place...
This is a perfectly decent little 'smalltown act makes it big on Broadway' story, nothing special but nothing worse than a dozen others in the genre. It's reasonably entertaining, although it has its share of lines that simply fall flat. And I can forgive a great deal for the sake of Keaton's wickedly accurate take-off of Napoleon Bonaparte in the opening scene; as proved so memorably in his 'ape act' on-screen back in "The Playhouse" (1921), given the opportunity the man was a truly gifted mimic.
Having said all this, however, it has to be owned that the one thing that really isn't necessary to this story is the presence of Buster Keaton. Which is unfortunate, because realistically speaking the only reason why anyone is likely to revive it these days is because of his name on the title screen! There's just one laugh that depends on Keaton's persona, and that's when Jimmy Durante attempts to demonstrate the effectiveness of his stage patter on this passer-by, whom of course the audience know to be incapable of cracking a smile. As so often with MGM's chosen vehicles for their unwilling star, one ends up wondering why they wanted him in it -- wouldn't any actor have done as well? In the case of this material, at least, there were almost certainly actors who might have done better...
Increasingly, all that the studio required of Keaton was the ability to take a fall and/or look bewildered, and that's about all he does here; the grand finale consists chiefly of swinging him round and round on a loop of rope, the humour of which does tend to wear off after a bit. The entire final sequence is based on what I had found to be the least successful section of "Spite Marriage" -- made by MGM only three years before -- in which Keaton's character blunders through the performance of a play, including the blatant re-use of a title-card gag from the silent feature in which the harassed stage manager hisses "Shoot him, they'll think it's part of the act!" Sooner or later, as Keaton's name lost its old shine, the penny was inevitably going to drop. MGM *didn't* need Buster Keaton for this sort of stuff, not when they had comics who could both fall over and talk. And with the once-meticulous performer reduced by the experience to an increasingly unreliable shell, his net worth to the studio was rapidly decreasing.
"Speak Easily" is not a bad film; it can still raise a few laughs. (It's not an especially outstanding one either, but that's another issue.) What it is not is in any sense a film representative of Keaton's strengths; given the disintegration of his personal and professional life at this stage, and the resultant number of days lost during filming to the fact that he had drunk himself into a condition unfit to work, it is perhaps surprising that he gives a performance as collected as this ultimately appears, but there's little trace left of his own distinctive style. He does a job that anyone else could have done, and does it more or less as well as can be expected.
What is the most harrowing movie ever made? The gynaecological nightmare of
'Cries and Whispers'? The acid psychodramas of Fassbinder? The
discomfiting black comedy of 'Last House on the left? I'm sure for that
portion of the film-loving public that tie their masts to the good ship
Buster Keaton, there is only one answer - any one of his sound films.
I don't know what flayed my soul more poignantly in this movie - the grounding of Keaton's intricate and expansive physical art to humdrum slapstick; the painful hesitation of this master filmmaker with dialogue - not that he hasn't a lovely, comic voice, or that he can't make dialogue funny; it's just that the studio don't seem to have given him enough takes, and so he seems to be trying to remember his lines before he delivers, which only makes him - Keaton, not his character, look silly; or is it the humiliation of seeing Keaton caught up in a tawdry sex farce, when he has given us some of the richest accounts of romantic frustration in film?
No, I know what was most disturbing - having to watch Buster Keaton, cinema's greatest comedian, sit aside to observe Jimmy Durante doing his schtick. It is horrors such as this that get yer Dantes composing yer Infernos.
MGM seem to have got the curious idea that the best way to adapt Keaton to sound was to turn him into a Marx Brother, complete with verbal pedantry, elaborate, tedious 'clowning', shambolic slapstick, theatrical setting, triumph through chaos, and Thelma Todd. Keaton was just not that sort of comic, and where Groucho's malicious tongue and gleeful opportunism might just have made this plot work, Buster's socially inept professor can't, he is too studied and predictable.
What Buster needed was to be allowed experiment like Lang in 'M', or Rene Clair; he would never have tried to hold back the tide like Chaplin. When a film like 'The General' is alluded to - messing about with trains - the loss becomes even more apparent.
And the thing is, in patches amid the flat direction, the film isn't all that bad - there is an excellent jolt when a camera on the bus leaves Keaton alone at a railway station; and the denouement, if hardly original, is at least livelier than what went before. There is something almost endearing about the way Keaton slows down a plot that needs all the zip it can get.
There is a film in here about loneliness, emotionally paralysing order, the numbing effects of education etc., struggling to get out. The best way to appreciate this film is to watch not the narrative of Professor TZ Post, but of emasculated genius Buster Keaton, trapped in a prison of mediocrity, confounded by new technology, mocked by a malevolent fate (in this case the studio), retaining a stoical grace. Looked at like that, it becomes a kind of masterpiece.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Out of all of the talkies made during Buster Keaton's ill-fated
partnership with MGM, only The Passionate Plumber (1932) and Speak
Easily (1932) are watchable. The others range from sleep-inducing to
infuriatingly bad, but these two have funny moments and Buster is
allowed to play characters with dignity and functioning brains.
In this film, Buster plays a timid college professor who decides to live it up once he believes he has inherited a large sum of money. He does well in the role and actually has some comedic chemistry with Jimmy Durante, who proves himself not irritating here. Thelma Todd is sexy and funny as the vamp out to get Buster's money and Ruth Selwyn is good as Keaton's love interest.
Despite being somewhat entertaining, this is still no classic. The climax on the stage is lifted from a similar sequence in Spite Marriage (1929) and even uses some of the same lines. Some scenes are forced and painful, like when Buster and Thelma get sauced. But if you had to sample a few of Keaton's MGM talkies, this would be one to see.
The greatest film comedian of all time? Well, if he had made better
sound films than this, I think that would have been indisputable. Or as
his partner here, one Jimmy Durante, may have put it, "indispicable."
Buster Keaton's transition to sound went over well at the box office. He had some of his biggest hits in talkies, including this one. But watching "Speak Easily" makes you wonder why. It doesn't move like classic Buster. It doesn't make you laugh like classic Buster. It just gives you Buster, playing a fish out of water - too convincingly.
As Professor Post, Buster is urged to leave his lonely sinecure teaching the classics at a fancy college and "go out and find life." Led to believe he has just inherited $750,000, he does so, and meets a troupe of traveling showpeople. Falling in love with one, Pansy Peets (Ruth Selwyn), he decides to take them to Broadway on his dime. Only he doesn't really have as many dimes as he thinks.
There are actually three comedy legends in this film. In addition to Durante, who is the troupe's combination comic and piano player and pretty good here with his miles-of-malaprops-a-minute manner, you have Thelma Todd. People who talk about Buster's tragically curtailed career should take stock of Todd, who died at 29 just as she was poised to take off in an era of funny women. She shows a lot of her realized potential here, as a gold-plated vamp who latches onto Buster when she learns he is putting on the show.
"Have you ever thought seriously of marriage?" she asks Professor Post.
"Yes, that's why I'm single," he replies.
There is also a sequence where Todd's character attempts to blackmail Post by having him caught out in his bedroom, something that could really happen back in the 1930s. This is set up by a beautiful two-hand drunk scene (just watch Todd's reaction after gulping Buster's cocktail!) before moving on to a variation of a routine Buster did many times, trying to carry an unconscious woman to bed, before Durante shows up to give the sequence a terrific capper. The scene is so good it belongs in a much better movie.
Durante isn't overbearingly antic here, but he has little to do except tell lousy jokes and string along the willing professor (whom he calls "that guy with the face") about his dog-and-pony show's prospects. Selwyn's a weak female lead, even with a fourth Hollywood legend, gossip-page pioneer Hedda Hopper, playing her overprotective mother.
Buster is at the center of what's wrong. He's not convincing as a professor, and his comedy mannerisms tend to be slow and obvious. It's been said he struggled in the sound era when MGM tried to make him play sad and sympathetic. There's some of that here (in the beginning Post is warned his lonely condition may drive him to suicide) but also a tentative quality to his line readings, long pauses and repetitious head bobs that may be his famous drinking problem showing up on screen or else just difficulty managing the different demands of talkie comedy.
The film limps along, an occasional funny line or good physical comedy bit standing out all the more for the tedium around it, until reaching an awful finale where the show makes its Broadway debut with assorted mayhem both on- and offstage. Every tired gimmick is trotted out, while Buster overplays Post's idiocy for the sake of some lame slapstick. It's a real wince-producing conclusion that leaves a more sour aftertaste than "Speak Easily" deserves.
People who want to see the worst of Buster will be disappointed with "Speak Easily," though not nearly as much as those who come to it wanting to see more of why he was so great.
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