Keaton and the Lion: A Critical Re-evaluation of The Cameraman, Free and Easy and Speak Easily – Anna Gardner

Much of the academic writing on the films of Buster Keaton concentrates on the silent period from 1917, when Keaton began his career in films, to 1928 when his independent production company (Buster Keaton Productions) was wound up and Keaton signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This article will explore some of the less highly regarded films of Keaton’s career, namely those made at MGM between 1928 and 1933, which have been neglected in the majority of the academic literature on Keaton as they fall outside what is generally considered to be his most fertile and creative period. This discussion will address some of the thematic, stylistic and performative changes between the independent shorts and feature films of Keaton’s earlier career and a selection from the nine feature films made after his move to studio production. Engaging in a broad overview of Keaton’s independent work and three case studies of his studio films, significant changes in relation to space, spectacle, character and fantasy can be seen between the two periods.

On first viewing it is clear that the nine feature films Keaton made in this period lack many of the formal and narrative elements seen in his earlier work. However, little consideration has been given to why this might be the case. Peter Parshall argues that the main reason for Keaton’s decline after his move to MGM was the constriction of space which restricted the movement of his body; however, there are also marked differences in how spectacle, character and fantasy function in Keaton’s independent and studio films. These differences are vital to understanding why Keaton’s films at MGM have been ignored or dismissed in discussions of his work. This article will undertake an exploration of the significant aspects of Keaton’s early filmmaking in order to contrast these with the characteristics of his studio films, as well as the historical and production context in which they were made. A more detailed illustration of how these formal and narrative elements operate in Keaton’s MGM films will be discussed in three case studies – The Cameraman (Sedgwick, 1928), Free and Easy (Sedgwick, 1930) and Speak Easily (Sedgwick, 1932).

Classic Keaton: Features of Keaton’s Independent Films

The most important components of Keaton’s independent films addressed in the literature include Keaton’s characteristic use of space, the weaving of spectacular elements into the narrative, his highly individualised character and the fluid notions of realism and fantasy that permeate his pictures. The boundaries between the major stylistic and performative elements of these films are blurred, as they are highly dependent on one another to achieve the distinct appearance and quality of a Keaton film.

One of the features highlighted in discussions of Keaton’s early work is his use of space, both in terms of mise-en-scène, and the positioning and use of his body in the frame. Charles Wolfe argues that “the rhythm of Keaton’s comedy is built around the moment-by-moment adjustment of Buster’s thinking, comportment and bodily effort in response to different physical locations and contingent circumstances” (300). Lacking the vast settings of his feature-length films, Keaton’s short films contrast a continuity of movement with non-continuous editing which enables the effective use of smaller spaces whilst retaining the impression of a large world. The best examples of this are Cops (Keaton and Cline, 1922) and The Goat (Keaton and St. Clair, 1921). Keaton’s feature-length films employ immense spaces which are essential to the films’ appearance and narrative. He appears dwarfed by large mechanical objects and “extensive landscapes whose sparse, uncluttered planes stretch laterally across the screen and in depth to the distant horizon” (Clayton 46). The largeness of the world around him highlights the heroic efforts of the protagonist by presenting a seemingly impossible challenge.

Space is also used to imply something fundamental about Keaton’s character which is in turn fundamental to the narrative. In The Navigator (Keaton and Crisp, 1924), the juxtaposition of the empty ocean and the massive ship with Keaton’s attempt to tow the ship using a rowboat emphasises the feebleness of Keaton’s character, but also his perseverance against impossible opposition. In Go West (Keaton, 1926) the contrast between the hero and the expansive space that surrounds him highlights his loneliness and isolation, which confers greater significance on Friendless’ relationship with his devoted cow, Brown Eyes.

Keaton’s need for space and the manner in which his character develops are intrinsically bound up with the spectacular elements of his films. The extensive locations are essential to Keaton’s filmmaking because, as Parshall argues, they enabled Keaton to expand his ideas beyond the traditional romantic comedy into the realm of the farce – the spectacular form of comedy (33). These spectacular sequences are where the Keaton hero proves his mettle and are thus essential to the narrative. Moreover, they fulfil the audience expectation for a Keaton film and allow Keaton to display his athletic and acrobatic skills. The manner in which Keaton triumphs over things of scale is significant because his success is never conventionally achieved. The eccentric manner of his victory “makes his accomplishments more completely and individually his, the expression of a self that remains oddly and engagingly comic while suddenly and heroically improving” (Moews 11).

Parshall argues that Keaton’s style of comedy was that of a ‘farceur’ rather than a comedian, as his films foreground the visual aspect of his storytelling (31). Farce is, according to Parshall, “a story-showing rather than story-telling form of drama in which spectacle is more important than dialogue” (33, original emphasis), not unlike Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions’ which “directly solicits spectator attention, inviting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle” (Gunning 384). This is seen in Keaton’s independent feature films, where visual images are paramount.

Another significant aspect of Keaton’s films during this period was his character. Keaton’s characters all possess the quality of youth, which is essential to the narrative as they all take the form of a coming-of-age story. The tension between the adolescent desire for recognition and a place in society, and the hero’s inability to effect this result in the hero being at odds with his social surroundings. Keaton must also overcome the machinations of other, stronger characters who occupy a higher position in the social order, one to which Keaton’s character aspires. His characters are juveniles who display many childish qualities before undergoing a transformation that reveals hidden depths within themselves or in the eyes of society. His innate otherworldliness gives his character the air of “a visitor, not native” (Kenner qtd. in Perez 339). This detachment from the world, countered by an unshakeable desire to belong, is the emotional heart of Keaton’s films and a feature of his character in all his films of this period: “Buster is unique in earnestly seeking a genuine togetherness. If he seems the loneliest of all comedians, it’s because he’s the one to whom companionship matters the most” (Perez 341).

The appearance of Keaton on screen is an essential reflection of the character he plays as he “[interprets his physique] as the outer form of an in-between stage in a boy’s life, when his desperation to play a part in the society around him far outdistances his know-how” (Dale 59). In this form, the stunts he performs act as a physical representation of universal emotions relating to growing up and taking one’s place in society. These challenges also bring about maturation in Keaton’s character, whether through skill or confidence, that helps him to establish his place in society.

In his feature films, Keaton moderated the more wildly unreal aspects of his short films, keeping them within the bounds of a ‘Keatonesque’ reality. They “discontinued using what [they] called impossible gags or cartoon gags” (Keaton and Samuels 174) in order to create a fantastic yet fundamentally realistic world. This reality is based on a dichotomy between the physical world and the world of dreams, and the films are continually shifting between the two. While there is reality evident in the locations and Keaton’s attention to historical detail, the films themselves often feel unreal. This unreality is the result of a number of factors including the narrative and locations, as well as the unique appearance of Keaton himself.

Dale argues that “because slapstick plays on our fears of physical and social maladjustment, many of the typical gags slide into nightmare territory” (5), particularly in the first part of the films where the hero is constantly thwarted by the machinations of something larger than himself. This fantastic, nightmarish atmosphere is most evident in the films where Keaton is most alone, such as The Navigator – the ocean liner being “the epitome of the alien territories the solitary Buster is called upon to master” (Perez 341). While The Navigator demonstrates the sometimes nightmarish quality of Keaton’s films, the dreamlike atmosphere of a film such as Go West represents a form of fantasy at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Keaton’s films possess a mythic quality which is closely linked to the aspects discussed earlier – the open, often anonymous spaces, the youthful hero who strives for adulthood and society’s acceptance, and the spectacle of the hero triumphing over inestimable and inhuman forces. However, competing with these mythic aspects is the solidity of the Keaton world. His preference for location shooting and his attention to historical detail pull the films firmly back towards reality. This solidity can be seen to counteract the comic whimsy of situations such as those in Go West, as well as the nightmarish quality of parts of The Navigator. The combining of solid historical detail and obviously real locations with the dreamlike thoughts and actions of the Keaton hero results in the films merging the two: the films looking real but feeling fantastic.

These formal and narrative elements of Keaton’s independent shorts and features are the essence of what gives his films their distinctive appearance. The interaction of these elements establishes the world of the film and Keaton’s place within it. Writing on Sherlock Junior (Keaton, 1924), Moews argues that “whether presented as real or dream, the film’s world throughout is a unified vision of a fantastic reality, or of a realistic fantasy, seen by a creative and transforming comic eye” (76). This is true of all Keaton’s independent films, as the expansive space, spectacular sequences, careful construction of character and the interweaving of reality and fantasy, mesh to produce films that are both realistic and fantastic. However, after shifting from independent production to the studio system, these elements steadily disappeared from Keaton’s films.

From Silent to Sound: A Brief Historical Overview

In a discussion of Keaton’s later films, the historical and industrial context in which they were made is an important factor to consider. The films are a product of their time and were influenced by general trends in filmmaking during the transition to sound. They reflect changing trends in comic style and genre that were occurring at that time, as well as the change in production method caused by Keaton’s move from independent production to the studio system.

Everson argues that “while silent film as an industry was dying, it was still growing as an art” (334) right into the transition period. The period was innovative and creative, as silent filmmakers were given a greater amount of freedom due to the studios’ preoccupation with innovations in sound technology. The late silents were visually sophisticated and characterised by a subtlety of shooting style and restrained use of intertitles, which complemented the visual narrative rather than fragmenting it (Everson 335). During the transition, the sound film “went through distinct – though overlapping – phases, from silent film supplement to integrated component” (Crafton 267). With the introduction of sound came the potential for traditionally sound-driven, stage-based genres such as the musical and the operetta, as well as dialogue-heavy courtroom dramas, all of which were popular during the transition period as they foregrounded sound (Crafton 14). Initially this meant the acquisition of a lot of popular Broadway shows and plays, although it took time for film to break with stage traditions[1] .

It can be argued that the industrial and technological innovation of sound affected the comedy film more than other genres, as the style of comedies shifted significantly from visual, classical narrative style to more anarchic dialogue comedies. Jenkins argues that early sound comedy returned to an aesthetic based around vaudeville or variety performance. As such, Keaton’s move to MGM took place during a period of upheaval in comedy film style. The sophisticated farce comedy of filmmakers like Keaton occupied a middle ground between the early sound comedies and the classical affirmative comedies Keaton made after his move to MGM, although these films were probably a closer approximation to his earlier work than the anarchic comedy films[2] . This can be seen in the structure of the plot, where the comedian is the central protagonist who strives to win the affections of a girl. However, they also display obvious gags and performative sequences which are not integrated into the story and the mise-en-scène is not exploited with the sophistication that Bordwell and Thompson highlight in Keaton’s Our Hospitality, for example (220-225).

MGM made the transition to sound cautiously, experimenting with part-talkies and later developing sound projects for its principal stars. The studio imported actors with theatrical and vaudeville experience, as well as directors, writers and composers from New York (Crafton 14). The mode of production at MGM was similar to the other major studios. It was a compartmentalised approach that tended to resist workers taking on multiple roles. There were, of course, exceptions but these were rare. The production line system, where scripts were written, read, developed and produced by different departments was far more inflexible than the adaptable, creative system that Keaton had worked under since he started in films in 1917. At the Keaton studio there was far more improvisation during filming. Only the beginning and end of the films were worked out before shooting began as they “always figured the middle would take care of itself” (Keaton qtd. in Franklin 73). Keaton believed that the inflexibility of the studio production method led to films appearing “too damn mechanical” as it did not allow for improvisation or adaptation (qtd. in Franklin 74). The MGM system did not allow Keaton to become involved in the development and writing process, and eventually he stopped trying to influence the scripts.

Following his move to MGM, the scale of Keaton’s films shrank as they became studio-bound, and the interplay of realism and dreamlike fantasy that characterised his independent films declined. Most importantly, as the contemporary critic Robert E. Sherwood wrote in Film Daily, “Buster Keaton […] is no longer Buster Keaton and no longer funny” (qtd. in Crafton 322).

Keaton and the Lion: Buster Keaton at MGM

The lack of critical literature on Keaton’s films at MGM means that there is no coherent understanding of their significance relative to Keaton’s other films and film history in general. Each author who mentions them has a different opinion of which is the best and some are unclear about their plots[3] . The following sections attempt, to some extent, to address this lack of critical writing by highlighting how Keaton’s films changed following his move from independence to the studio system.

Buster Keaton starred in sixteen feature films during his period at MGM from 1928 to 1933. Nine of these features were English language productions whilst the other seven were foreign language versions (French, German and Spanish) of some of these films[4] . In addition to this, he also participated in MGM’s revue films The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Reisner, 1929) and the unreleased The March of Time (1930)[5] . These films out-grossed his independent films by as much as a hundred percent in some cases[6] . They have, however, been regarded as substandard when compared with Keaton’s independent films and critically neglected in discussions of his work.

Everson suggests that the major studios at this time allowed greater freedom to those actors and directors making silent films in the early part of the transition period (334). The two silent films Keaton made immediately after his move to MGM – The Cameraman and Spite Marriage – appear to be shot with more freedom than his later sound films. This is evident in their relative openness, indicative of a lack of supervision and studio direction, compared with the spatially restricted sound films he made subsequently.

Keaton’s first sound film, Free and Easy, represents a departure from classical narrative convention, as it is not Keaton who gets the girl but the ‘villain’ of the film. It also foregrounds the film production process and the glamour of MGM. In Doughboys and Sidewalks of New York, Keaton was cast alongside Cliff Edwards (also known as Ukulele Ike, who starred in The Hollywood Revue of 1929). Following these films was Parlor, Bedroom and Bath – an adaptation of a Broadway farce that, according to producer Larry Weingarten in a 1972 interview, was acquired as a direct result of MGM’s writers struggling to produce material for Keaton. He admitted they “were desperate” and “didn’t know what to do” and acquired the rights to the play on impulse (qtd. in Dardis 190)[7] .

In the last group of films Keaton made in this period at MGM he co-starred with Jimmy Durante. In The Passionate Plumber, Speak Easily and What! No Beer? Durante’s extrafictional performance is foregrounded. However, in the early sound period this was not unusual and, as a result, the films rest firmly within the anarchic comedy tradition in which character and plot were unimportant compared with displays of the performers’ virtuosity. This can be seen in films such as the early sound comedies of the Marx Brothers where narration and character development are subordinated to the display of the comedians’ various talents.

The Cameraman: An MGM Film

Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman was the first film he made after moving from independent production to the studio system at MGM. It represents a loss of the fundamental aspects of his earlier films – space, spectacle, character and fantasy – that deepened as his MGM career progressed. While The Cameraman is made in the style of a traditional Keaton film, there are significant alterations in the way the film looks, as well as its narrative. Parshall argues that the film is spatially much more constricted than Keaton’s independent films and much of it is shot on sets rather than locations. There are also other shifts away from his earlier filmmaking style. While spectacle is a factor in the film’s climax sequences, it is not based on the interaction of Keaton with his environment and, crucially, Keaton’s acquisition of a physical or work-related skill does not resolve the narrative. The opposition of realism and fantasy is not woven into the whole film and is largely limited to Keaton’s pantomime baseball game and his initial attempts at newsreel filming[8] .

The restrictive space of The Cameraman is the most obvious shift in filmmaking style following Keaton’s move from his independent studio to MGM. In his investigation of the film, Parshall highlights this and links it to a generic shift in Keaton’s filmmaking after his independent period. He argues that “although Keaton could adapt his routines to romance comedy, he could do so only if granted proper space” (30). Parshall’s contention is that the studio system did not allow this freedom.

Keaton’s opening scene is an example of the constriction of space evident throughout the film. As Keaton’s tintype photographer attempts to take a photograph, the scene suddenly begins to fill with people and Buster[9] is swamped. Throughout the film Buster “seems to have trouble physically manifesting himself, to such an extent that he is persistently threatened by physical oppression while struggling for a place near Sally” (Boone 2). Boone maintains that this spatial constriction is thematic, arguing that the “opposition between photographer and cameraman recalls the anathematized opposition between stasis and dynamism” (3). This is a valid argument, however in this film Keaton does not reach the level of dynamism that makes the spectacular transformation sequences in his earlier films so heroic.

[STILL from Cameraman]

The notional climax of the film is the Tong War sequence, where Buster finally masters the camera. However, unlike his previous films, this climax is not a physical transcendence of his earlier awkwardness. Parshall highlights the fact that Keaton is essentially immobile throughout the sequence and the lack of physical movement in the film, especially at the climax, means that the audience loses an essential connection with Keaton’s character, as in his earlier films “the audience is linked to him by kinesthetic sympathy, moving as he moves” (35).

The most Keatonesque scenes in the film do not fit comfortably into the narrative. Keaton’s pantomime baseball game is a piece of physical performance that does not match the largely interior and set-based aesthetic of the film. Likewise, the sequence where Buster attempts to open his ‘Bank for Dimes’ moneybox, in which he is defeated by a simple physical object, is reminiscent of his independent features (notably the tins he attempts to open in The Navigator) but has the air of a self-contained routine in the context of this film, as Keaton’s engagement with objects and his environment is not a central theme. The scene in the changing room also presents as a contained piece of comic performance, particularly as Keaton is much more aggressive in the scene than his character is throughout the rest of the film.

[STILL from Cameraman]

Keaton’s The Cameraman does not engage with the spectacular in the same way as his earlier films. This is related to the spatial restrictions obvious throughout the film, seen in the increased use of sets and absence of oversized props, as well as the changing nature of the comedy film in the transition period, from a visual style to a style that privileged dialogue. The generic shift in the comedy film in this period led to a move towards romantic, dialogue comedy and The Cameraman uses significantly more dialogue than Keaton’s previous film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner, 1928), which can be seen in the increased number of dialogue intertitles [10].

Unlike an independent Keaton film, the narrative is not resolved in a spectacular sequence and, in a departure from Keaton’s established formula, the story is not resolved through his gaining proficiency in the profession he set out to master and using his newfound knowledge to rescue the heroine. Instead, Buster and Sally are united in an epilogue as a result of the organ grinder’s monkey filming Buster rescuing Sally, therefore not as a direct result of Keaton’s actions. In the film there is a “blurring of old form, of the dynamically charged narrative of youthful transformation, and sequences are no longer tightly integrated to effect the hero’s change” (Moews 311).

Keaton’s character in The Cameraman differs from the juvenile role he played in his previous films. Throughout the film, Buster is not presented as a youthful hero but “an elderly young man” (Moews 310). There are several scenes that suggest a more mature yet socially awkward character, such as his boarding house room and his job as a tintype photographer, which also suggest the establishment of a place, however modest, in society. The film therefore deals with Keaton less as an outsider than his previous films.

The gender roles in the film are reversed; it is Sally who urges Buster onward rather than serving as an ideal that he independently strives for. Sally physically directs Buster when they go walking, as he takes hold of her arm and is lead, rather than leading. It is Sally who suggests that Buster should photograph the warehouse fire after he sits and watches the other cameramen rush out the door. This is far from the actions of the hero in an independent Keaton film where “once the boy is set in motion, he simply moves” (Moews 79). In The Cameraman he is no longer the unstoppable Keaton hero, which is best demonstrated by the fact that he admits defeat at the end of the film – handing over his film, pawning his newsreel camera and returning to his former existence as a tintype photographer. Although he wins the girl in the end, his success is not a result of his determination and industriousness.

This shift in his character affects the feel of the film, as “there is a significant deflation in comic tone to something less cheerful and expansive than before” (Moews 310). The lack of movement and motivation in the hero emphasises the more contained narrative and absence of true spectacle. As the transformation of Keaton’s character had generally been bound up with the presence of spectacle in his films, The Cameraman lacks the sense of Keaton as a truly transformed individual.


There is little opposition of realism and fantasy in The Cameraman. The elements of fantasy that exist in the film are contained in specific sequences. These sequences, like the pantomime baseball game, the piggy bank sequence and the changing room scene, demonstrate the containment of Keaton’s fantastic tendencies, as the unreal quality of these sequences does not permeate the entire film. They also illustrate how, under the influence of the increasingly dominant classical narrative style, the film contains sequences which previously would have been seen to disrupt the narrative. The scenes have clear limitations and at no point do the boundaries of the film expand to allow the kind of movement that enabled Keaton to explore his capabilities or the unsympathetic nature of the world in his independent films. Comparing the climax of The Cameraman with that in Steamboat Bill, Jr., Parshall argues that it is the rhythm of the editing in the Tong War sequence that creates excitement, while in the latter “Willie’s vaulting body […] creates magic” (38). In The Cameraman Keaton’s movement is severely curtailed, therefore he is unable to bestow a sense of unreality on his surroundings and the film as a whole.

[STILL from Cameraman]

With double exposures and camera tricks, the short sequence containing Buster’s newsreel film demonstrates the whimsical possibilities of the cinema but this sequence highlights the ordinariness of the rest of the film. Lebel argues that the film represents an exploration of the nature of film but film reality rather than the film fantasy explored in Sherlock Junior. He argues that both films highlight their respective genres as an illusion, as Keaton’s character in The Cameraman seeks to alter the reality of the situation he is filming by, for example, returning a knife to a man who is struggling under the weight of an assailant or throwing light bulbs into the street to simulate the sound of gunfire and reinvigorate the battle (166).

However, the genuine newsreel footage inserted into Keaton’s first and last scenes provides a truly realistic context for the film. As Parshall argues, Keaton “remains trapped in a terribly commonplace world” compared with the “world of farce, the world of imagination” created in his earlier films (38), in which there was a tension between the realism of the locations and the heroic fantasy of the narrative.

Free and Easy: Did we mention this is an MGM film?

The most unconventional film Keaton made in this period at MGM was Free and Easy. Very much a product of its time, the film contains elements of romantic comedy, operetta, and the backstage musical which were popular genres during the transition period, although by 1930 when Free and Easy was released, the popularity of the musical genres was beginning to wane (Crafton 358). Compared with Keaton’s independent films, and even with his two previous films at MGM, Free and Easy is extremely confined in terms of space and limited in terms of physical spectacle. The spectacular aspect of the film is not built on Keaton’s individual performance but on the self-conscious display of contemporary MGM stars and encapsulated musical performances. Keaton’s character is decidedly mature which conflicts with the innocence he displays and, rather than being dwarfed by and heroically triumphing over the world around him, Keaton is verbally belittled. Contrary to Keaton’s established formula, he is successful in a profession but fails to win the girl. The tension between fantasy and reality in the film is confined to the non-narrative musical sequences, where the illusion created by the costumes and choreography is undermined by the presence of other cast members and the crew of the film-within-the-film.

In terms of space, Free and Easy is very confined. The majority of the scenes in the film are conducted indoors on sets, and where locations are used, they are almost entirely situated on the MGM backlot. The opening scene of the film demonstrates how far from the style of an independent Keaton film Free and Easy is. The scene, at the Gopher City train station is, like so many scenes in The Cameraman, filled with people. As a result, Keaton is pushed to the left-hand side of the frame, lacking space in the frame as well as in the film in general. When Keaton is finally centred in the frame, it is the sound aspect of the film that is foregrounded rather than Keaton’s physical performance. The scene is an “attempt to foreground sound by adapting a silent-comedy sight gag” (Crafton 321) as Keaton’s opening lines are repeatedly drowned out by the band, and because of their noise, he misses the train. Keaton’s independent films often featured trains which were used to highlight the openness of the space around his character, either by travelling through space (as in Our Hospitality [Blystone and Keaton, 1923], Go West or The General [Keaton, 1926]) or by filling the frame before revealing unexpectedly open space around Keaton (as seen in his arrival in both College [Horne, 1927] and Steamboat Bill, Jr.). In Free and Easy the train is not used to highlight the space around Keaton, but as a plot device which constrains his movement as he is forced by the guard to remain at the end of the train.

[STILL from Free and Easy]

A large part of Free and Easy is set on the MGM backlot, and the conception of space in the film becomes multilayered: the film itself and the films within it. The film sets that Elmer invades whilst escaping from the security guard highlight the staged nature of a variety of film styles, as he ruins an action sequence in one scene, a domestic drama in another and finally a choreographed musical number. The final sequence that Elmer disrupts is shot in a manner that emphasises the restricted nature of the film set, as the camera alternates between shooting the sequence itself as a traditional musical film, and shooting the scene from behind the cameras, revealing the entire set.

The climax of the film is the comic opera finale where “the story screeches to a halt […] as Buster embarks on some encapsulated musical numbers” (Crafton 321). The restricted nature of the set, placed within the larger restricted space of an MGM sound stage means that Keaton has little chance to perform physically. The stage-like nature of the performance is an example of the influence of the vaudeville aesthetic in this film, as the musical numbers are consciously framed to present the performance to the theatre audience as well as to Elvira and the film’s crew, seen in the cut-away shots.

A different aspect of the vaudeville aesthetic can also be seen in Free and Easy as the film draws attention to the construction of film and the celebrity status of the people involved. Dardis argues that “the basic idea was to show the glamorous side of MGM by having Buster burst into a set being used by a production company, wreck the shooting, and then run onto yet another set” (182) . This allows the extrafictional acknowledgement of many well-known MGM stars, such as Jackie Coogan, Cecil B. DeMille, Lionel Barrymore and William Haines. The presence of these stars draws attention to Keaton’s own extrafictional star identity as well as disrupting the consistency of the fictional narrative and characters.

Performance spectacle in the film is limited to musical sequences. This is a different form of spectacle to the physical confrontations and expansive space in Keaton’s independent films. The musical performances are primarily a sound spectacle, as the choreography does not involve much movement around the space and is generally confined by the studio set. There are three instances of musical performance in the film. The first is the operetta sequence that Elmer invades, while the other two are the climax of the film, featuring Keaton as the star of a comic opera. In Free and Easy Elmer’s successful performance does not result in his being united with Elvira. Rather, the final scene deals with the emptiness of stardom, as Elmer must come to terms with losing Elvira to his rival.

To this end, the final scene employs another kind of spectacle. As Dardis highlights, “the final shot is of a suffering Buster in a huge close-up, wearing his clown makeup” (182). Elmer’s grief is openly acknowledged through the close-up, as his clown character joins in the happy finale of the comic opera. It demonstrates how far from comic Free and Easy actually is, as well as the dramatic change in Keaton’s character that takes place in this period at MGM.

[STILL from Free and Easy]

Although Keaton’s character had been aged slightly in his two previous MGM films, after the introduction of sound the youthful character he had played in his earlier films was impossible, as Keaton’s voice did not match that of a very young man[11] . However, the MGM writers “transformed his screen character from a young man who is dawningly sexual, and who combines childlike passivity with adult stoicism, into a late starter” (Dale 89)whose innocence is at odds with his age. Moews argues that the shift in Keaton’s screen persona was a move away from physical towards character comedy. In this form of comedy, however, “there is no way of retaining and exploiting his characteristic silent compound of comic fragility and heroic strength, of diminutive and finely featured vulnerability combined with physical dexterity and unflappable endurance”. (312)

In Free and Easy his persona is patronised and emasculated as he is publicly humiliated in a variety of scenes. Elmer is mocked on stage at the film premiere when they first arrive in Hollywood. He ruins Larry Mitchell’s operatic musical number and is berated by the director in front of the cast and crew, as well as Elvira and her mother. He is cast in a minor role but cannot remember his lines and is again berated by the director in front of his girl. He becomes a studio chauffeur, and must drive Larry Mitchell and Elvira to a party. He acts as little more than a prop as a director auditions large women for the comic opera that will be the climax of the film. These scenes take place with no suggestion that Elmer has the potential to reassert his masculinity and comprehensively defeat his rival. In Keaton’s independent films, the belittling of the hero is visual and countered by his determination to succeed and be accepted by his girl and the society around him. It is also bound up with his physical dexterity. However, in Free and Easy the hero lacks this stubbornness. The film also lacks the clear, goal-driven narrative and relentless movement that creates this sense of single-minded determination in the hero.

Unlike Keaton’s independent films, the world of the film appears exceptionally ordinary despite its supposedly glamorous setting. The tension between realism and fantasy in Free and Easy is confined to the contrast between the illusion of cinematic performance and the backstage reality. The ordinariness of the film’s aesthetic demonstrates a remarkable change of the look of Keaton’s films after his move from independence to the studio environment. While his independent films were often based in a realistic universe, Keaton’s character and his interaction with his environment lent the films a dreamlike quality. In his films at MGM, this condition is reversed, as the contrived film sets and wholly unreal plots feel mundane in the absence of the physical performance style seen in his independent films – “there is no sign of the magic and poetry or the delicate precision of his best work” (Dardis 182).

[STILL from Free and Easy]

The comic opera is a self-contained performance within the film, and it contains elements of stage artifice and magic tricks. It opens with Elmer and Ma Plunkett performing a comic duet which dissolves into a choreographed argument and they tear each other’s costumes apart. The number then morphs into a mock ballet, at the end of which Keaton, playing the King, dives from a high platform and disappears into a pool of water. The worried Queen jumps in after him but finds that the pool is only ankle-deep. The sequence is unlike a performance in a musical or backstage film since, while it is “self-enclosed and independent of the surrounding narrative”, the film does not employ the “spectacular expansions and distortions” common in other films which foreground musical performance (Rubin 36). Therefore, while the content of the sequence is fantastic, the backstage reality of its construction, limited scope and presentational style overwhelms the fantasy of the comic opera itself.

Keaton’s performance as a clown also blends the concepts of reality and fantasy, since his fictional character reflects a certain reality about Keaton himself, namely that he is a great comic performer. His singing and dancing recalls his physical style of comedy as well as his vaudeville heritage[12] , but in this film he is limited to a simple choreographed routine.

Speak Easily: Enter Durante…

Speak Easily was the second film Keaton made with Jimmy Durante. While in The Passionate Plumber Durante was cast as a supporting character, in Speak Easily he has a co-starring role. This is reflected in the foregrounding of Durante’s performance throughout the film. In some ways, the film is similar to Free and Easy, as Keaton’s character is again discovered to be a great comic talent but it is more clearly, although not entirely, situated in the ‘backstage film’ genre. The film is more spatially restricted than any of Keaton’s previous MGM films, with almost the entire film being shot on sets, and the film lacks even the subdued elements of spectacle that can be seen in the preceding films. Keaton’s character is similar to the awkward, older man he played in Free and Easy. Together, these elements remove all trace of the fantastic from the film.

Rapf argues that “like so many early sound films, Speak Easily, except for the chaos on stage at the end, seems static and talky today” (325). Unlike Keaton’s previous films in this studio period, which had small non-verbal sequences where he was able to use his body to communicate with the audience, Speak Easily has none of these. As a consequence, the film has an extremely restricted spatial appearance as Keaton cannot use movement to convey a sense of a world outside the range of the camera.

While Rapf argues that the scene at the train station early in the film allows Keaton “some familiar train gags” (324), like Free and Easy these gags are not based on the revelation of space or placing Keaton’s character in his physical context. The most physical gag in the scene is when Professor Post, desperate to get back on the train with his trunk (which was left behind), clings to the handrail and is dragged for a short distance. As a physical gag, and compared with the physicality of a sequence like the cyclone in Steamboat Bill, Jr., it is extremely tame. The excitement in the scene does not arise from Keaton’s continual movement through space but from the chaotic nature of the scene and the constant flow of dialogue.

[STILL from Speak Easily]

Speak Easily is not a traditional backstage film that focuses on the production of a show. The show itself is not situated in “a special or bracketed space, adjoining the primary space of the narrative but not completely subordinated to it” (Rubin 36). The show is suggested by a few scenes, shot in a presentational style. The film does not dwell on the performance by expanding the space in which it is shot like, for example, the films of Busby Berkeley.

As the staging of the show is not the main concern of the film, there is very little of the film that could be considered spectacular. Dardis argues that “the physical Keaton, the Keaton of spectacular inventions, was absent” (211), as there are almost no visual comedy sequences in the film. There is a sense of spectacle in the foregrounding of personalities in the film, particularly that of Jimmy Durante, as well as the self-referential aspect of Keaton’s character.

Rapf emphasises the fact that there are “almost no point-of-view shots or visual gags that depend on the unique perspective of the cinema for their effect, unlike the visual comedy in the best of Keaton’s silents” (325). What little physical performance there is in the film is confined to the short encounter with the train and Professor Post’s bumbling about backstage and during the performance, including getting trapped on the cyclorama.

[STILL from Speak Easily]

Less fantastic than Free and Easy, the film lacks the spectacular sequence that proves Keaton’s character has hidden talent. Professor Post is recognised for comic abilities he does not realise he is displaying, rather than through the conscious application of physical skill, and while the comic opera in the earlier film is, in itself, accomplished and funny, the performance in Speak Easily is disorganised and chaotic. It also lacks the high production values of Free and Easy.

A sense of spectacle is achieved through the focus on the individual personas of both Keaton and Durante, which demonstrates the vaudeville aesthetic present in early sound comedies. In particular, Durante’s persona is highlighted by his performance, which makes little attempt at characterisation, and by his awareness of the camera. It also makes reference to his previous career as a live performer through his presentation of one of his signature songs, while regularly glancing at the camera/audience. Keaton’s performance also ironically refers to his stage experience, as his character tells the audience that he is “[unfamiliar] with stage procedure.” His character’s lack of physical dexterity refers to Keaton’s reputation for acrobatic skill and grace, making its absence in this film all the more obvious.

[STILL from Speak Easily]

Keaton’s character in Speak Easily is extremely limited, both physically and in terms of character development. Professor Post is a bookish character, with only the merest suggestion of physical ability, and he is conspicuously older than any of Keaton’s other characters. His clumsiness and inexperience of the world, while initially reminiscent of Keaton’s independent heroes, does not change throughout the film.

The significant aging of Keaton’s character is a dramatic shift from his independent films, which focused on his juvenility. This change “greatly diminishes Keaton as a screen presence, depriving him of the heroic assurance, the underlying potential for glory, that even in the course of ludicrous bumbling made him a focus of admiring attention before”. (Moews 310-11) By removing all suggestion of the heroic from Keaton’s character, he becomes a pathetic figure, which is enhanced in this film by his lack of physical dexterity. While Keaton’s independent films depicted his character as clumsy or inept, they would resolve situations in innovative and individual ways. In Speak Easily there is no suggestion that he will assert himself or demonstrate heroism through physical capability.

The lack of dramatic change in Keaton’s character is emphasised by the fact that there is no recognition of his new self. The chaotic climax of the film limits the emotional impact when it is revealed that the professor has chosen Pansy over Eleanore, which appears as a cinematic afterthought, taking up the last twenty seconds of the film. The style of the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying, as it focuses on the resolution of the narrative thread about the professor’s false inheritance while the romantic plot, the only example of change in Keaton’s character, is treated inconsequentially.

The static nature of Speak Easily reduces the element of the fantastic in the film to almost nothing. The lack of movement in the film, as well as the absence of heroic transformation on the part of Keaton’s character, means that the film does not possess the fairy-tale quality of his independent shorts and features. The film does not hold to the conventions of the backstage film by showing part of the final performance in a narratively self-contained space. As such, there is no section of the film that harnesses the fantasy elements of the stage.

[STILL from Speak Easily]

In Keaton’s independent shorts and features, the way in which he moves about the spaces in the films is an important factor in developing a sense of otherworldliness. However, in Speak Easily this movement has been entirely eliminated and therefore there is no suggestion of a larger world outside of the camera’s range. The lack of heroic space and mythic transformation adds to the ordinariness of the film. The film is located in a world that is closed-in, and the final triumph of the narrative – the success of the show – is talked about rather than explicitly shown in a self-contained sequence. This absence of visual attraction makes the world of the film appear smaller and less magnificent than the fantastic heights of Keaton’s independent films.


These three films represent a progressive decline in the presence of formal and narrative elements normally associated with Keaton’s films. While The Cameraman contains sequences that are reminiscent of earlier Keaton films, later films such as Free and Easy and Speak Easily present a waning of Keaton’s influence over the story and direction. The use of visual spectacle in Keaton’s films gradually disappears over the course of his time at MGM and changes to his character, provoked partly by the introduction of sound, eliminate the heroic transformation that distinguished his earlier feature films: “Instead of a glorious young fool, the heroes are now pathetic little men, and […] there is an air of condescension toward them, implicit throughout and explicit in the attitudes of the other characters” (Moews 310). These factors ground the films in an ordinary world, reducing the opposition of reality and fantasy to almost nothing. Under the studio system, Keaton’s quiet introspective style was overwhelmed by a production-line mentality that reduced the scale and individuality of his films, while in his independent films Keaton had explored the “vast inhuman organization” of fairy-tale worlds, leaving the audience with “the haunting image of his solemn and solitary figure, at once purposeful and detached, bravely attempting the impossible” (Perez 366).


Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 1979. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2004.
Clayton, Alex. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2007.
Crafton, Donald. The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926 – 1931. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1997. Vol 4 of History of the American Cinema. Ed. Charles Harpole. 10 vols. 1990-2003.
Dale, Alan. Comedy is a Man in Trouble. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. 59-91.
Dardis, Tom. Buster Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1979.
Franklin, Robert and Joan Franklin. “Interview with Buster Keaton.” in Kevin W. Sweeney, ed. Buster Keaton: Interviews. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2007.
Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde”. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2006. 381 – 388.
Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.
Keaton, Buster and Charles Samuels. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. 1960. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.
Lebel, J. -P. Buster Keaton. Paris: Classiques du Cinéma, 1964.
Macleod, David. The Sound of Buster Keaton. London: Buster Books, 1995.
McCaffrey, Donald. The Golden Age of Sound Comedy. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1973.
Moews, Daniel. Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977.
Parshall, Peter F. “Buster Keaton and the Space of Farce: Steamboat Bill, Jr. versus The Cameraman.” Journal of Film and Video 46.3 (1994): 29-46. International Index to Performing Arts. ProQuest. State Library of Victoria. 26 Apr. 2009. <>.
Perez, Gilberto. “The Bewildered Equilibrist: An Essay on Buster Keaton’s Comedy.” The Hudson Review 34.3 (1981): 337-366. JSTOR Film Studies. La Trobe U Lib., Melbourne. 12 Mar. 2009 <>.
Rubin, Martin. Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
Wolfe, Charles. “Western Unsettlement: Transcontinental Journeys, Comic Plotting and Keaton’s Go West.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 5.3 (2007): 299-315. Informaworld. La Trobe U Lib., Melbourne. 26 Apr. 2009 <>.

Films Cited

The Cameraman. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton and Marceline Day. 1928. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2004.
College. Dir. James W. Horne. Perf. Buster Keaton, Harold Goodwin and Annie Cornwall. 1927. DVD. Madman, 2005.
Cops. Dir Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox and Joe Roberts. DVD. Eureka, 2006.
Doughboys. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton and Cliff Edwards. 1930. VHS. MGM/UA Home Video, 1993.
Free and Easy. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton, Anita Page and Robert Montgomery. 1930. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2004.
The General. Dir. Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman. Perf. Buster Keaton and Marion Mack. 1926. DVD. Madman, 2005.
The Goat. Dir. Buster Keaton and Mal St. Clair. Perf. Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox and Joe Roberts. 1921. DVD. Eureka, 2006.
Go West. Dir. Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale and Brown Eyes. 1925. DVD. Kino, 2001.
The Navigator. Dir. Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp. Perf. Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire. 1924. DVD. Kino, 2001.
Our Hospitality. Dir. Buster Keaton and John Blystone. Perf. Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge and Joe Roberts. 1923. DVD. Kino, 2001.
Parlour, Bedroom and Bath. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton, Charlotte Greenwood and Reginald Denny. 1931. DVD. Alpha Video, 2004.
The Passionate Plumber. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. DVD. Classic Video Streams, 2008.
The Saphead. Dir. Herbert Blaché. Perf. Buster Keaton, William H. Crane and Irving Cummings. 1920. DVD. Kino, 2001.
Sherlock Junior. Dir. Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire. 1924. DVD. Kino, 2001.
Sidewalks of New York. Dir. Jules White and Zion Myers. Perf. Buster Keaton, Anita Page and Cliff Edwards. 1931. VHS. MGM/UA Home Video, 1993.
Speak Easily. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. 1932. DVD. Alpha Video, 2004.
Spite Marriage. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton and Dorothy Sebastian. 1929. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2004
Steamboat Bill, Jr.. Dir. Charles R. Reisner. Perf. Buster Keaton, Ernest Torrence and Marion Byron. 1928. DVD. Madman, 2005.
What! No Beer?. Dir. Edward Sedgwick. Perf. Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. 1933. VHS. MGM/UA Home Video, 1993.


1. Norma Shearer’s sound debut The Trial of Mary Dugan (Veiller, 1929) was criticised for its adherence to stage conventions, as it appeared to be “a too literal recording of the stage presentation” according to a contemporary reviewer (qtd. in Crafton 294).

2. Parshall argues that this shift represents the difference between farce and comedy. He argues that “comedy – built on interaction between people – needs intimate space; farce – built on interaction between people and things – requires expansive space with less social restraint” (34).

3. Dardis describes What! No Beer? as “tedious,” “filled with talk” (221) and on a par with Sidewalks of New York as Keaton’s worst MGM feature (200) while McCaffrey argues that it is “an above average comedy” (33). Crafton, writing about Free and Easy, says that “Elvira finally finds stardom” (321) when she actually rejects it. He also erroneously states that in Doughboys Keaton “encounters his old boss, who has become a German lieutenant” (322). In fact, he stumbles upon his former butler. This is not unlike the inaccuracy about Keaton’s independent features that Dardis highlighted in Keaton: The Silent Features Close Up and sought to remedy.

4. The films can be divided into three stages with two initial silent films – The Cameraman and Spite Marriage (Sedgwick, 1929), a middle period of four films – Free and Easy, Doughboys (Sedgwick, 1930), Sidewalks of New York (White and Myers, 1931) and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (Sedgwick, 1931), and three final films in which he co-starred with Jimmy Durante – The Passionate Plumber (Sedgwick, 1932), Speak Easily and What! No Beer? (Sedgwick, 1933). Eight of the nine films were directed by Edward Sedgwick, an old vaudeville comedian who had, like Keaton, been part of a family act (Dardis 162).

5. No director is credited with this film as it was abandoned before completion. Portions of the film (although none of Keaton’s scenes) were later edited into Broadway to Hollywood (Mack, 1933) which Macleod describes as a “curious film” which is “an infinitely more accurate version of Buster [sic] life-story than the later biopic” (148).

6. For details of the box office takings of Keaton’s independent and MGM films see Dardis, Tom. Buster Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1979.

7. The film is notable in one respect, as Keaton’s own home was used as a set for the outdoor sequences in the opening part of the film (Dardis 198).

8. It is also curious to note that Keaton smiles three times in this film. This is perhaps symptomatic of Keaton’s loss of editorial control. Keaton had not smiled on screen since he was loaned to Metro to make The Saphead (Blaché, 1920) soon after beginning independent production at his own studio.

9. ‘Buster’, in this context, refers to Keaton’s character. There appears to be some debate over the name of Keaton’s character in this film. The film’s credits list his character as ‘Buster’ (although the credits could have been added later) and Sally clearly addresses him by that name in one scene. His character is never referred to by name in an intertitle. Throughout Youri Boone’s article on the film, he refers to Keaton’s character as ‘Luke Shannon’. Boone’s article and the entry on The Cameraman in Jim Kline’s The Complete Films of Buster Keaton, as well as an entry on the film’s Internet Movie Database ‘Goofs’ page are the only obvious references to that name in relation to this film. Parshall mentions that there are several minutes of footage missing from all prints of The Cameraman (36) and Boone’s article draws on the earlier work of Jean-Pierre Coursodon both of which could potentially be the source for this name. Kline acknowledges the assistance of several film archives in compiling his book, but as he does not cite sources for his information and the book only contains a ‘Selected Bibliography’, it is unclear what his source is for the name ‘Luke Shannon’.

10. While Steamboat Bill, Jr. has forty-nine dialogue intertitles, The Cameraman has eighty-eight. Parshall argues that this represents “the movement toward verbal rather than physical interaction” (32).

11. Alan Dale claims that it “scrapes like a gin-rusted hinge” (89) which is a little unfair. It is true that his voice is somewhat gravely, possibly as a result of his drinking, but it is also quite deep and therefore not appropriate for a juvenile character.

12. MGM’s in-house publication drew attention to this fact in a March 1930 edition, saying: “The new Keaton in pictures will permit full play to the dialogue, singing and dancing talents which make him a stage winner” and later describing this new role as “literally breathtaking” (qtd. in Dardis 182).


Author Bio
Anna Gardner is a former student of La Trobe University she completed a Graduate Diploma in Cinema Studies as well as an Honours thesis entitled ‘Keaton and the Lion: A Critical Re-evaluation of Buster Keaton’s Films at MGM, 1928 – 1933’.