2017-09-12

sovay: (Claude Rains)
Even for a pre-Code comedy, MGM's Speak Easily (1932) is an oddity. It's a talkie starring Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, for whose sake [personal profile] spatch and I would have watched it even if the cast list hadn't also included Thelma Todd. It has the kind of plot that can be most charitably described as lackadaisical, half fish out of water and half backstage musical and slapstick throughout, with little concern for narrative tension or payoff. Most of its music is stolen from other shows, which at least turns out to be one of the gags. It proves its pre-Code credentials the minute Durante refers to Todd as "big-time sex appeal," which she then confirms by enthusiastically stripping off in Keaton's office to demonstrate her suitability for the chorus line and Keaton falls off a chair as only he can, like a shockwave just hit; later in the plot she will slip into something sufficiently more comfortable that the only opaque parts are the big fur-trimmed sleeves, although the volume of booze knocked back in the same scene would almost certainly have put it beyond the pale in the Breen era anyway. I would not necessarily call Keaton's style of comedy a natural pairing with Durante's and I'm not sure the film managed to convince me that it was. I'm also not sure I cared.

I know the '30's were a bad decade for Keaton, personally, professionally; the studio system was a creative straitjacket, his marriage was breaking up and his drinking was out of control, and a lot of Speak Easily is funny at the level of affectionate smiling rather than open laughter, but the fact remains that as Timoleon Zanders Post, a mild-mannered and literal-minded professor of classics turned loose on an unsuspecting world by a well-meaning porter who just wanted him to live a little, Buster Keaton is adorable. Owlish, serious, and nerdily articulate, on discovering that he has apparently inherited $750,000 from an unknown beneficiary, "Timsy" throws all his worldly belongings into a steamer trunk—or tries to; some of his belongings are things like a coatrack and a chaise longue, which don't pack well—and heads out to experience Life, which he finds in the form of a fifth-rate troupe of vaudevillians who can't even get a hand in the culture-starved whistle-stop of Fish's Switch. Durante's Jimmy dashes back and forth between banging on the upright piano that passes for an orchestra pit and baggy-pantsing his way through jokes that even dad jokes would be embarrassed to know socially. The already thin audience is bailing as the curtain comes down. But Post is enraptured by the sweetly mediocre dancing of Ruth Selwyn's Pansy Peets and flattered by the support of the loudmouthed comic whom he addresses at all times as "James" and before anyone including Post quite knows what is happening, they're all headed to Broadway on the strength of a fictitious inheritance and the professor's very sincere appreciation of an art form which he keeps comparing to Aristophanes. (He is crestfallen to be told that not everything in Greek comedy is suitable for the Great White Way. "But, James, it was done so in Athens!"–"Yeah, they might get away with it in Athens, that's a college town!") He doesn't get mixed up with the gold-digging prima donna that is Todd's Eleanor Espere so much as he gets steamrolled, but the audience knows he'll come out of it eventually, even if he does stagger around initially with lipstick prints like rouge on those beautiful cheekbones of his. The finale in which the straight-faced professor finds himself accidentally salvaging the show with physical comedy isn't quite worthy of Sempitern Walker, but then Keaton's wearing too much clothing for that.

Even in a production that doesn't quite know what to do with him, it's a pleasure to watch Keaton do his thing. He's a silent comedian, a physical actor: he drops flat to the floor to read the inheritance letter, as if afraid it'll get away if he doesn't pin it in place; he has the stuffy, prissy posture of a man who can be identified a mile off by his pince-nez and his umbrella and his undertaker suits until he gets excited about something, at which point he bounces and flails and runs in and out of rooms like he's reenacting Marathon. He falls off trains, couches, catwalks, his own feet. When the calculating Eleanor tries to get the professor shikkered in order to compromise him (okay, I guess the PCA wouldn't have gone for that, either) and Post in the belief that a Tom Collins is a kind of lemonade mixes them both drinks stiff enough to cause spontaneous combustion, the results are one of the silliest drunk scenes I have ever encountered and gorgeously so, as a helium-voiced Todd loopily tries to put the moves on her oblivious prey and Keaton very seriously and very incompetently attempts to put his seductress to bed, at different points accidentally folding her in half and failing the fireman's carry and both of them slithering all over the furniture until Todd dressed in a negligée, a fox stole, and a very fancy hat takes a running faceplant onto one of the twin beds while Keaton who has managed to remove his shirt and his pants but forgotten about his sock garters carefully arranges himself on the other and passes out cold in a position that would give lesser mortals a crick in the ass. When he wakes up and comprehends where he is, he slips backward off the bed and blinks catlike over the rumpled bedclothes, a perfect silent short. If you're curious about Keaton's voice, by the way, it's not just fine, it's good. It's notably middle-American but not flat, with an edge that lends itself well to the meticulous diction and drypoint delivery of a character who absentmindedly hypercorrects "speakeasy" into "speak easily," but he can also sound shy, solicitous, flustered, and defiant, with the occasional Jimmy Stewart-like crack when events—or girls—really overtake him. I remain extremely annoyed that Mayer refused to take a chance on him for the serious, sympathetic role of Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932). He'd have been a revelation.

In the great reckoning of stories of nerds in show business, Stand-In (1937), Speak Easily is not. Probably the best way to consider the movie is as a series of extended sketches on a theme, of which the audience should enjoy whichever appeals to them and disregard the rest. Buster Keaton, even at a very rough patch in his life, remains both ridiculously beautiful and beautiful in motion, kinetic energy with umbrella in hand. I am aware that Jimmy Durante is something of a polarizing phenomenon, but I really enjoy him and his manic energy which never feels like it's gotten away from him. In the middle of the finale, he hauls a piano out in front of the curtain and does one of his nightclub routines and who cares if it makes sense in context, what we've seen of the show-within-a-show Speak Easily has been a sort of scantily clad revue mish-mosh anyway and Durante's sideways sequiturs are charming: "I know I'm not good-looking, but what's my opinion against thousands of others?" The problem with putting him and Keaton in the same routines is that neither of them is really a straight man—they're just different types of zany, Durante brash, Keaton mild—and I'm not sure the studio knew it. Too many of the jokes are set up as though one of them is supposed to hail from planet Earth and really they work best when the characters are operating at cross purposes (Post's inability to understand slang vs. Jimmy's inability to speak anything but) or unexpectedly on the same screwy wavelength. They were assigned two other films together, The Passionate Plumber (1932) and What! No Beer? (1933), and I am considering watching the latter only because it's in the TCM buffer and it's a Prohibition-era comedy about the repeal of Prohibition, which sounds historically intriguing if possibly not very well done. It does not, alas, appear to co-star Todd, who gets one of the best throwaway lines in the picture describing a costume she has in mind for her classically inspired dance: "There's not very much to it, you know, it's just right across here and a few beads—right, left." There's not very much to the film, either, but I regret nothing about giving it a try. The best of it is really funny; the worst of it won't hurt you. This variety brought to you by my Aristophanic backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Today I had back-to-back doctor's appointments on an hour and a half of sleep, so [personal profile] spatch met me after the second and took me out for dinner at Loui Loui in Allston. It was a surprise until we got there. It was wonderful. The walk was slightly longer than expected—and the day much hotter—but we kept to the Esplanade and ducks and sailboats and sunbathers and the breeze off the water until we cut over into BU territory and were abruptly surrounded by students. The restaurant is plain but delicious. The special of the day was the fried catfish basket, which suited Rob, while I got the shrimp boil and did not expect that to mean a solid pound of spicy, garlicky peel-and-eat for which I was thoughtfully presented with gloves so that I did not scald my fingers off. There was coconut-milk ice cream from FōMū afterward, cold-brewed coffee for Rob and peach compote for me. And then the MBTA totally fell over on us and it took us something like two hours to get home, of which the bright spot was encountering a cheap but well-preserved reprint of Chester Himes' The Crazy Kill (1959) in the basement of the Harvard Book Store and the totally unnecessary part was having to walk up the hill from Union Square because the 88 decided it was really an 87 after all. The Mummy Returns (2001) has not yet come in to the library. The sky after sunset was the kind of soaking, luminous blue that looks rich enough to reach into. I really just want to pitch over sideways on the couch. I might just do that.
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