And...they put him into a musical. After all, when something is successful, do something completely different and expect the same results. For all of Irving Thalberg's reputation of being a movie "genius," his work to "improve" Buster Keaton shows him to be not only fallible, but thuddingly so. Of all the pratfalls Keaton took, this one is the most painful to watch...because it's not under his own power.
In Free and Easy, Keaton plays Elmer Butts, a gas station attendant, who seeks to be the manager and very unlikely paramour of Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page), winner of the Gopher City Kansas beauty pageant, who is travelling to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune and/or a movie contract. Along for the ride, chaperoning, is Elvira's indomitable mother (Trixie Friganza) who thinks Elmer is a sap and is in no way shy of expressing that thought...or any other. But, Elmer is smitten, and after nearly being left behind by the train, finds himself perpetually frustrated trying to talk to Elvira.
The description makes it sound like a typical Keaton script, but, this time it's with sound, and immediately, you sense a problem: the timing's off. Comedy has a rhythm and its timing is critical in order to produce a laugh. The hi-jinx getting on the train in the opening scenes all try to play for big laughs, but come up short, and they stutter as the physical comedy that, before, propelled a Keaton comedy is replaced by broad dialogue. The film will improve the ratio a bit as it goes along, but, initially, it's a bit of a shock, especially when compared to the momentum of Keaton's silent's, which were cut to the action, not to the dialogue.
There must always be a rival for the girl's affections in a Keaton film, and it arrives early in the form of a studio contract player named Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery in only his 6th on-screen role), who is suave, debonair, and a bit of a cad. He convinces Elvira that he can do great things for her with his contacts in Hollywood, and it may be only a ruse to seduce her (the film is pre-Code, so you could get away with things like that), which puts us clearly on Team Keaton. Even as he bumbles his way through trying to connect with Elvira—he drives her and Mom to a big Hollywood premiere only to not be able to attend with her himself because he can't find a parking space—one senses a change in character under the mis-direction of MGM. Keaton always played something of a rube, but he was always a resourceful one, practically willing himself to get out of predicaments; how he would extricate himself out was always part of the surprise and part of the charm of his work.
He, he's merely hapless—a Kansian lost in the glitter and absurdity of Hollywood (ironically, Keaton actually WAS from Kansas). He's out of his depth in all the shallowness, a decent-enough fellow in an environment where glitz and glamour are what is valued. The conceit of the film is that of What Price, Hollywood (to be filmed two years later)—that Page's Elvira gets to Hollywood where she decides that what she wants is stability, and it is actually the unsophisticated Elmer who gets a Hollywood contract, getting something he doesn't really want, but losing what he does. Career and love go on parallel tracks of desire, but never in the same direction.
Elmer goes skulking around the MGM lot trying to find Elvira while trying to avoid studio security, screwing up shots, destroying sets, and being a typical bull in a china-shop, when he stumbles into an audition with director Fred Niblo—Free and Easy is full of cameo's by MGM stars and directors that it almost feels like a presentation to its board of directors—who can't seem to get a decent line reading of "Woe is me, the Queen has swooned!" Despite the difficulties with lines, he nevertheless manages to get a featured musical-comedy role—improbably playing against Elvira's mother!—in a large production that's run like a Broadway show—even though it's a movie, it's all presented as if they do it in one amazing shot, without the necessity of editing away (except in the magical way that MGM musicals do).
Perhaps we should leave that for the ending, with a successful Elmer in sad clown make-up, bravely keeping the show going on, while holding back tears for his lost lady-love. Sentimentality was never a strong suit for Keaton—that's in Chaplin's bag of manipulations—he would always undercut it with a joke and move on, but, here, the filmmakers linger on the pathos...and it just...feels ...wrong. Sad, yes, but not in the way it's intended. Sad because it's a great comic artist—nay, genius—being misused in a way that he never would have planned at his own studio. But, Keaton was no longer considered an artist, but just a commodity. And if MGM saw him as a "fall-guy," rather than as a comedian, then he would take the fall. And for a comedy called Free and Easy, that's a tragedy.
Free and Easy did make money, though, which only encouraged MGM to continue their folly. Keaton's next movie, though, would see a return of his comic snap.