Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #60: "Speak Easily" (1932)

Buster Keaton is a nerdy professor turned theatrical impresario in Speak Easily.

The flick: Speak Easily (MGM, 1932) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.9

Director: Edward Sedgwick (Riding on Air)

Actors of note:
  • Ruth Selwyn (Five and Ten, Polly of the Circus; film career in early 1930s was brief; best known as the wife of writer/director/producer Edgar Selywn)
  • William Pawley (The Grapes of Wrath, Angels with Dirty Faces)
  • Sidney Toler (famously played Charlie Chan from 1938 to 1946 when ill health forced him to retire; died a year later)
  • Sidney Bracey (The Marx Brother's Duck Soup, Tod Browning's Freaks, much more)
  • Edward Brophy (voice of Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo; also appeared in Freaks)
  • Fred Kelsey (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce)

Thelma Todd puts the moves on Buster Keaton.
The gist of it: Naive, unworldly Professor T.Z. Post (Keaton) receives a fraudulent letter from his well-meaning assistant, Jenkins (Bracey), informing him that he has inherited $750,000. Jenkins only means to get the shy academic to explore the world a little, but Professor Post soon goes too far. During a train trip, he takes a shining to a sweet, pretty dancer named Pansy Peets (Selwyn), the "star" of a third-rate theatrical troupe, and agrees to take her crummy show to Broadway and bankroll it with the money he thinks he has.

The rest of the cast, including comedian-pianist Jimmy (Durante), is thrilled about this, but Pansy is honest and doesn't want the Professor to waste his money on a show she knows is a bomb. But Post is undaunted and brings the entire cast to New York to start rehearsing, even though the newly-hired director (Toler) has no faith whatsoever in the show or in Pansy's marginal talents. A blonde vixen named Eleanore Espere (Todd) wins a role in the show and does her damnedest to seduce Professor Post and trick him into marrying her, even getting him drunk for the first time in his life. Eventually, reality catches up with this misbegotten show on its opening night when a lawyer's representative (Apfel) shows up and tells Jimmy that Post doesn't have any money and will be slapped with an injunction for non-payment of his bills if he appears at the theater. And, sure enough, an impatient process server (Kelsey) comes looking for the professor.

Knowing that the only chance to get some of Post's money back is for the show to go on as planned that night, Jimmy does his best to keep the professor away from the theater. But the hapless, totally-oblivious Professor Post wanders back to the theater and even bungles his way onto the stage many times during the evening, unintentionally sabotaging every scene. The audience thinks this is all part of the act, and the show becomes a fluke hit.

This movie did not end the Great Depression.
My take: Pop culture historians say that Buster Keaton's career went into decline in the 1930s when he signed a contract with MGM and lost creative control of his films. This humble 1932 MGM production, then, is part of Buster's downfall. And yet I found a lot to enjoy about Speak Easily. It's a breezy, good-natured backstage farce with some well-executed verbal and physical humor. Yes, verbal. Obviously, a big difference between Speak Easily and the movies Buster made in the 1920s for Joseph M. Schenck is that this one is a talkie.

Fortunately, the erstwhile silent comic has a knack for dialogue, delivering his lines in a charmingly bemused manner with just a hint of a Kansas drawl. His character here, prissy Professor Post, seems like the 1930s equivalent of David Hyde Pierce as Dr. Niles Crane on Fraiser. The script gives Keaton some good lines, especially in his exchanges with sexy Thelma Todd (more on those later). And while not as overtly physical as his short films of the 1920s, Speak Easily has a few impressive stunt sequences for Keaton to perform, like when he's dragged behind a moving train while trying to reach for his trunk or when he sneaks out of Todd's apartment via the fire escape.

But Buster is not the whole show here! Jimmy Durante is second-billed and gets a generous amount of screen time to do his high-energy, Vaudeville-style patter, performing with such enthusiasm and panache that you can't help but be won over. Durante's character is a hacky comedian whose jokes are intentionally awful, so his appeal comes from his desperation as he tries to sell his weak material and his indignation when his punchlines are met with annoyed silence. His frantic nature also makes a good counterpoint to Buster Keaton's practiced nonchalance. As a vintage ad for the film proclaims, "Nature meant them to co-star!" While nothing earth-shattering or game-changing, Speak Easily is a film worth salvaging from Buster's much-maligned tenure at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Is it funny: Yes! The laughs start right away, with a darkly humorous sequence in which Jenkins tries to warn Professor Post about the dangers of avoiding life and staying hidden away with books as one's only companions. Post's predecessor, Jenkins says, shot himself in the very chair where the introverted professor is now sitting. Buster Keaton then (wisely) gets out of that chair and lays down on a nearby couch... which Jenkins then informs him is where the poor guy died. Sometimes you just can't win, folks. Later, Keaton and Thelma Todd share some snappy banter:
SHE: (seductively draping her leg on his desk) Y'know, I've got legs. 
HE: (nervously) I assumed as much. 
And then there's this:
SHE: Have you ever seriously considered marriage? 
HE: Yes. (A beat.) That's why I'm single.
The film has several other sustained comedic sequences, too, namely one set at a railroad depot where Buster has all manner of trouble with his trunk and his ticket, incurring the wrath of the conductors. Maybe my favorite sight gag in the film comes when our hero, thinking he's finally sorted everything out, blithely sits down in an otherwise-empty car... as the rest of the train pulls away from the station without him.

My grade: B+

P.S. - No African-American stereotypes, but Brophy's nervous, bug-eyed character appears to be an ethnic stereotype of some kind. What exactly he's supposed to be is beyond me, though. Spanish? Italian? Also, Durante makes a joke about the supposed cheapness of Scotsmen. ("In Scotland, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is playing as a double feature!" Get it?)