Speak Easily Review

Buster Keaton ended his silent career at MGM and made tentative steps into the talkies with the same studio. After a sprightly start with The Cameraman, and to a lesser extent Spite Marriage, the films soon degenerated into such best-forgotten titles as Parlor, Bedroom and Bath and the one featured on this very disc, Speak Easily. By 1933 Keaton had his contract with MGM cancelled and his career would never again reach the heights scaled throughout the 1920s. There’s always been the question as to whether it was the studio that stifled the comedian’s creativity or simply a case of Keaton being unable to adapt to talking pictures, but either way the movies from early thirties remain curios and little else; there for the completist and the historian, though hardly a general audience.

Speak Easily sees Keaton take on the part of Professor Post, a nervy and humourless type who mistakenly believes he has inherited $750,000 and heads off to finally live his life. This being a brisk little comedy, the very first interaction – with a shoddy theatrical troupe headed by Jimmy Durante – provides the cue for much of the ensuing narrative: Keaton finds a tentative romance with Ruth Selwyn; indulges in some bedroom farce with Thelma Todd; becomes a benefactor to the troupe and inadvertently finds success whilst causing incessant mayhem; and ultimately earns himself a happy ending. In between there are also a handful of musical numbers, plenty of laboured verbal routines and, oddly, very little slapstick.

The big question that raises its head whilst sitting through Speak Easily is ‘why Keaton?’ – in other words, exactly what does this film offer the great comedian? Too old to play the innocent romantic of his earlier and without an instantly recognisable personality as per Harold Lloyd or Chaplin, Keaton is effectively asked to play the straight man. You never get the impression that we’re trading on past roles here (rather you sense MGM is merely playing on Keaton’s name) and so it’s hard not to imagine that any actor could have occupied the role. Tweak the screenplay a little and Eddie Cantor would fit just as easily or any other comedian under contract at MGM during this time. Indeed, Keaton’s physicality is kept to a minimum and instead the humour relies on talk, talk and more talk, albeit dialogue that’s rendered creaky not only by the static handling befitting of an early talking picture but also our lead’s undoubted unease. Take away the certain fascination brought about by the ‘Keaton Speaks!’ aspect and it’s hard not to agree that Durante comes across as a far more appealing and memorable figure, an odd sensation given that Durante always worked best as a supporting player.

Perhaps acknowledging that the early MGM talkies such as Speak Easily were a misstep (Chaplin, of course, kept silent – if you will – during the transition, ensuring a continuity between his earlier efforts and City Lights and Modern Times, as well as allowing for a more gentle break into sound production) it interesting to note that all of the Keaton appearances we remember from 1930s onwards effectively saw him utter little more than the occasional word. Sunset Blvd., Chaplin’s Limelight and even his cameos in the likes of Beach Party Bingo (the latter being effectively silent movie interludes cut into much brasher productions) all prove far more memorable than Speak Easily simply because they, in their various ways, trade on his silent movie glory years. As said, a film such as this one may interest the completist or historian for the very reason that it sticks out like a sore thumb, but unsuspecting fans should steer clear. Until some enterprising DVD company takes a peak around Keaton’s little-seen and much-forgotten television work, made towards the end of his career and said to include a number of hidden gems, it would be best simply to stick to the silent years and (re)discover the many riches held within.

The Disc

Though it’s harsh to say as much, given that Speak Easily is the first release for distributor Powis Square Pictures, this disc could easily have been issued ten years ago. The film itself is in poor condition – damaged, grainy and with a soundtrack that halos the dialogue with loud hisses – but the DVD isn’t much better. The grain prompts continuous artefacting, the image is soft and interlaced, the soundtrack muffled. Furthermore, there are no extras and no optional subtitles; a very basic presentation for what also a poor film. Indeed, only a package from MGM themselves covering the 1928 to 1933 period Keaton spent at the studio, with spruced up prints and contextualising extras, could really justify Speak Easily gaining a proper release, but then it’s highly questionable as whether this particular disc serves as a ‘make do’ prospect until such a package arrives – if one ever does, of course…

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