SPEAK EASILY (director: Edward Sedgwick; screenwriters: from the story “Footlights” by Clarence Budington Kelland/Laurence E. Johnson/Ralph Spence; cinematographer: Harold Wenstrom; editor: William LeVanway; music: Arthur Freed/David Snell/Nacio Herb Brown/Charles Maxwell; cast: Buster Keaton (Professor Timoleon Zanders Post), Jimmy Durante (James “Jimmy” Dodge), Ruth Selwyn (Pansy Peets), Thelma Todd (Eleanor Espere), Hedda Hopper (Mrs. Peets), William Pawley (Griffo), Sidney Toler (Rayburn, Stage Director), Edward Brophy (Reno), Henry Armetta (Tony); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Buster Keaton; MGM; 1932)
“Tired sight gags and dull-witted dialogue make this Buster Keaton talkie almost unbearable.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Tired sight gags and dull-witted dialogue make this Buster Keaton talkie almost unbearable. It’s a far cry from the Great Stone Face’s masterful silent comedies like The General, Steamboat Bill Jr and The Navigator. Edward Sedgwick (“I Love Lucy”/”Air Raid Wardens”/”Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm”) directs without inspiration, while writers Laurence E. Johnson and Ralph Spence base it on the story “Footlights” by Clarence Budington Kelland.
In 1928, Keaton’s financial backer Joseph Schenck folded the company that produced the great Keaton silents, and advised Keaton to give up independent production and join MGM. Keaton took MGM’s generous financial offer but was soon to say it was “the biggest mistake of my life.”
When Speak Easily was made Keaton’s life was in shambles: his marriage to Natalie Talmadge was on the rocks, he was a drunk and MGM found him unreliable (he often was a no show for work) and the studio started meddling. Keaton was placed on the leash of producer Lawrence Weingarten, who had little appreciation of his kind of comedy and the independent way he operated–relying mostly on improvisation. Under the studio strait-jacket, Keaton made one bad film after another. Though some critics said Speak Easily was the best of his talkies, that really reflects more on how bad the other talkies turned out than praise for this film.
In this imponderable vaudeville slapstick backstage Broadway comedy, Keaton is teamed with the up-and-coming studio favorite Jimmy Durante. They would make three films together (Passionate Plumber-1932 and What! No Beer? -1933) though they never formed a smooth partnership, as their comic styles never meshed.
Keaton plays Professor Timoleon Zanders Post, a lonely, conservative, socially awkward, literal thinking, bookish, rube, middle-aged bachelor college professor, who mistakenly believes he’s inherited $750, 000 and leaves his college post in a small town to go to NYC and try to catch up on a more fulfilling life he thinks he’s missing out on. While aboard a train he runs into a struggling acting troupe that stars fast-talking piano playing comedian James Dodge (Jimmy Durante) and sweet dancer Pansy Peets (Ruth Selwyn), whom he falls for. Thinking he’s inherited a fortune, the Professor backs the troupe in a Broadway show. Problems arise with a bossy stage director (Sidney Toler), an aggressive leading lady gold-digger named Eleanor Espere (Thelma Todd) who gets her hooks into the supposedly rich bumbling Professor (their drunken skit together is the film’s finest) and a process server trying to close the show before it opens but is given the run around by Durante. When the play is a hit because Keaton accidentally keeps interfering with the performers and the audience mistakenly thinks the physical comedy he does is part of the show and can’t stop laughing (even though it wasn’t funny or sublime). A big Broadway producer is impressed by the comedy routine and buys a half share for $100,000, and the show is saved and Keaton also gets the good girl Pansy.
The titled is derived when Keaton hears someone mention they worked in a “speak easy” and corrects them by saying that grammatically it should be speak easily.
REVIEWED ON 5/11/2009 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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