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Monday, March 24, 2014

'Free and Easy' DVD: Keaton Speaks

Free and Easy/Estrellados Double-Feature
As the recent review on the Warner Archive DVD release of the early and comedic version of the classic Judy Garland drama "A Star is Born" "What Price Hollywood" promises, this review shares thoughts  on the similar 1930 film "Free and Easy." This tale of a small-town beauty queen seeking Hollywood stardom is primarily noted for being the first "talkie" in which silent-film comic genius Buster Keaton appears.

Archive makes this release even more special by including it in the year-long celebration of Archive's fifth birthday. In this case, Archive is including the full-length Spanish version of "Easy," which is titled "Estrellados."

Archive explains on the back cover of the "Easy" release that studios typically filmed these foreign-language versions with a cast that spoke said language at the same time as the American version. (Keaton stars in both versions.) This practice helped overseas sales of the film.

"Easy" opens with recently crowned Miss Gopher City, Kansas Elvira and her overbearing mother boarding a Hollywood-bound train to pursue Elvira's dream. Anita Page, who made several silent and early talkie films, does a great job as Elvira. Page also outdoes Betty White by appearing in films up until her September 2008 death at the age of 98.

The aptly named Trixie Friganza does equally well portraying "Ma" as a stage mother who makes Charles Bronson look like a wimp and Patsy Ramsey seem like June Cleaver.

Keaton plays Elmer Butz, who is a bumbling manager thrust on Elvira and Ma. This role allows Keaton to show off the slapstick talent that has made him a genuine American idol. His best bits include running for the train earlier in the film and mercilessly being repetitively grabbed, thrown to the ground, and stomped on in a later segment.

Keaton additionally wonderfully plays the stooge in numerous scenes that simultaneously prompt laughter and genuine sympathy. Achieving this is an even neater trick than mastering a prat fall.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of an "Easy" scene illustrates Keaton's talent for schtick (slap and otherwise) and the wonderful silent film vibe that remains in this infancy of talkies,

Leading man Robert Montgomery, who both worked with "Star" and "Hollywood" director George Cukor and fathered uber-awesome "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery, plays the role of established star who takes Elvira under his wing in "Easy."

Much of the "Easy" fun relates to watching Keaton get into the act in every sense of the word; seeing him suffer varying forms and degrees of abuse from Ma is equally entertaining.

Audiences will also delight in a vivacious and amusing cameo by charming child star Jackie Coogan years before he learns that his parents stole all his earnings and decades before playing Uncle Fester on the classic '60s sitcom "The Addams Family."

The absence of some elements of the stereotypical Hollywood happy ending further sets "Easy" aside and reflects the depth that sets Keaton aside from contemporaries who lack his substance.

The most important takeaway from all this is that the plethora of talent-competition reality shows that populate prime-time schedules show that Americans still have not tired of tales of "nobodies" who dream big and often suffer in one form or another at the hands of those whom they meet on starting to ascend the ladder of success. The difference is that Keaton et al do a much better job than Cowell and his ilk.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Easy," Hollywood," or "Star" is welcome to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.