The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, September 04, 2007
MOTION PICTURE REVIEW: Free and Easy (Edward Sedgwick, 1930): This was Buster Keaton's third project after signing with MGM, but it marks the real end of his independence. If the studio interfered with his first picture for the company, The Cameraman, it takes a discerning eye to spot the evidence: It's a marvelous movie, arguably on par with the best of his independent films. His second effort for MGM, Spite Marriage, was more constrained, but it still has plenty of entertaining set pieces. If you're a Marx Brothers fan, you can think of The Cameraman as Keaton's Night At the Opera, and Spite Marriage as his version of the toned-down but fairly funny comedies that closed out the group's career.

But there is nothing in the Marxes' C.V. that compares to this unfortunate film. It was Keaton's first talkie, and his first movie in several years that he didn't have a hand in directing: a conventional comedy that expects Keaton to get laughs with his lines, not his balletic physical comedy or his famously stony face. There are only two real bursts of slapstick in this picture -- a chase through a Hollywood lot and a curious musical duet -- and they're the only scenes worth seeing. The rest is as ill-advised as ... as... as a completely scripted Ali G movie. (What,
someone made that too? Never mind.)

I suppose I should insert a spoiler alert before I discuss the Pagliacci-style ending, with Keaton's character compelled to play a clown while the woman he loves marries another man. In the context of the story this fails to be poignant, but in the context of the star's career it inadvertently hits the mark. This, we now know, would be Buster's fate for the rest of the '30s: Reduced to clowning in mediocre comedies while everything he cares about -- his family, his home, his creative freedom -- is taken away. Watching it today, the ending feels like a deliberate ritual humiliation, as the Hollywood machine forces the greatest American director of the 1920s to fall in line.


posted by Jesse 12:03 AM
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