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1930's Free and Easy was the beginning of the end for Buster Keaton. Some will say it started the moment he signed with MGM, but his time at the studio did treat us right off the bat to The Cameraman and Spite Marriage, two excellent comedies that were the last silent pictures the Great Stone Face ever made. But within a few minutes after pressing play on Free and Easy, Keaton's debut talkie, your mouth will be agape at how much of the physicality and energy that made the man a legend has been stripped away. Although I'm not one to hate on how the sound era treated Keaton (I quite enjoyed the military farce Doughboys), it's plain to see that this film had absolutely no clue how to properly tap into his skills. Free and Easy is a meandering mess with precious few laughs, of interest only to Buster fans morbidly curious enough to see where it all went wrong for the comedy great.

Free and Easy / Estrellados
True to form, Keaton plays an innocent do-gooder who just can't help the trouble his bumbling ways always land him in. This time, he fills the shoes of Elmer Butts, a small-town mechanic who takes it upon himself to guide beauty contest winner Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page) to Hollywood stardom. Despite harboring a crush on "Miss Gopher City," Elmer is powerless to stop her from going ga-ga for a matinee idol (Robert Montgomery) who's been shooting her one come-hither stare after another. Ironically, the more he and Elvira's domineering mother (Trixie Friganza) try making an actress out of her, the more on-screen gigs Elmer ends up stumbling his way into. But even though the fates keep sidetracking him from confessing his true feelings, our hero still only has eyes for Elvira and does everything in his power to ensure her happiness -- for better or for worse.

While it's advertised as a Buster Keaton vehicle, Free and Easy couldn't be any less concerned about Buster Keaton. MGM commits an awful lot of time to showing off the lot, name-dropping stars, and shoehorning in cameos from people like Lionel Barrymore and Cecil B. DeMille, who get nothing to do to top it off. You'd think the studio would've gotten the self-congratulating out of its system after The Hollywood Revue of 1929, but alas, MGM puts more into making itself look good in Free and Easy than it does the flick's actual headliner. Things do get off to a fairly innocuous start, with Buster's first scene of the sound age being one in which Elmer is amusingly drowned out by a brass band. The set-up isn't even all that different from previous Keaton films that cast him as a lovable loser out to win over his sweetheart's affections. But to say that Free and Easy clips his comedic wings is the understatement of the century; this thing shackles poor Buster to the ground, forcing him to act out a lifeless script and boiling his awe-inspiring physical prowess into a few moments of slapsticky prancing.

Free and Easy / Estrellados
The fact that Buster engages in more dialogue than stuntwork should be your first indication that something's amiss with Free and Easy. It isn't that he should've been confined to non-speaking roles for all eternity, since to his credit, he works hard towards earning the audience's sympathy here. But Keaton gets so little to work with here -- from the countless, sluggishly-timed jokes to the threadbare plot upon which they're laid -- and so little room to put his personal stamp on the project, watching him go through the motions becomes incredibly depressing. There's no better image to summarize the Free and Easy experience than that of Elmer, decked out in sad clown make-up, being hauled around on giant puppet strings against his will. Plus, as if this all weren't bad enough, the film checks out on an uncharacteristically cruel note, one that it might've gotten away with, had it not ended up making Elmer such a passive participant in his own story. But as close to being a complete washout as the movie gets, some of the actors do save it from abject failure, especially Friganza as a controlling stage mother who gets roped onto the silver screen herself.

Packaged with the Warner Archive Collection's release of Free and Easy is Estrellados, an alternate, simultaneously-filmed version made for Spanish-speaking audiences. Keaton returns to lead an all-new cast, and while the bulk of the film is essentially the same, there are a number of noticeable changes. The climax includes extra footage from the comic opera that Elmer ends up performing in, as well as some bizarre scenes in which snippets of Page, Montgomery, and Friganza from Free and Easy are used to portray their real-life selves at a Hollywood premiere. But in the end, Estrellados is in even worse shape than its English counterpart. Keaton's shaky phonetic Spanish loses its charm fast, the pacing is slower yet, and nearly all signs of Elmer (or, in this case, "Canuto") showing romantic interest in his lady love have been excised (and yet that kidney-punch of an ending is still intact).

Free and Easy / Estrellados
Warner Archive presents both Free and Easy and Estrellados in full-screen, 4x3, 1.37:1 aspect ratios. They've been struck from prints that have seen better days, but I'm not about to rag on the movies for their abundance of visible grain and cigarette burns. It's true that the picture quality isn't the greatest (I don't recall Warner Archive's previous, "remastered" release of Keaton's Doughboys being that much cleaner), but considering their age, I can forgive the films for looking a bit rough.

Free and Easy and Estrellados each come with Mono-only audio tracks (with the latter accompanied by yellow English subtitles). There are plenty of cracks, pops, and fizzles to be heard all around, yet it all retains a certain level of charm and never becomes bothersome. My only big complaint is that certain portions of Estrellados are obviously comprised of recycled footage from Free and Easy, and seeing what a slipshod dubbing job has been done with these scenes can be pretty hilarious for all the wrong reasons.


Free and Easy / Estrellados
Free and Easy was previously released in a TCM Archives set alongside Spite Marriage and The Cameraman, two much livelier, funnier, and all-around better titles. If you happen to own that particular collection, there's no reason to chip in for this solo release, lest you be a Keaton completionist with a hardcore hankering to see how Estrellados stacks up. Bless Warner Archive for wanting to bring more Buster into the lives of vintage movie buffs, but I just wish that Free and Easy didn't turn out to be such a woeful selection.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the DVD's image quality.
**Note: Free and Easy / Estrellados is a DVD-R, burn-on-demand disc that may not play in certain devices.