Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page) has won the Miss Gopher City pageant, and the prize is a trip to Hollywood for a screen test at MGM.
Leaving her small Kansas town, Elvira is accompanied to California by her mother (Trixie Friganza), who is very controlling, and her new manager, Elmer J. Butts (Buster Keaton).
Elmer had been working as a gas station attendant when he was pegged to tag along with Elvira and her mother. He was appointed by the Chamber of Commerce, but he’s all too eager to tag along, seeing as he’s secretly in love with Elvira.
On the train, Elvira and her mother meet Larry Mitchell (Robert Montgomery), an MGM contract player. Larry soon falls for Elvira, and she knows that this handsome young movie star has the connections that could help her ace her screen test and become a star.
Free and Easy marked Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a talkie. The film was directed by Edward Sedgwick and released in 1930. An alternate-language version of the film, Estrellados, was made with Buster Keaton and a cast of Spanish-speakers (Raquel Torres, Don Alvarado). The film was also remade in 1937 as Pick a Star.
This musical comedy is packed full of cameos. Appearances are made by Lionel Barrymore, William Haines, Dorothy Sebastian and Jackie Coogan, among others. Even the legendary Cecil B. DeMille himself turns up.
The cameos are worth tuning in for, as are the few song-and-dance numbers.
However, this is not a film without problems, the greatest of which is the under-utilization of the great talents of Buster Keaton. He’s got a couple of good gags here, usually in the form of falls. One scene in which he attempts (and fails) to keep up with the professionally-trained legions of Hollywood dancers during a number is hilariously played.
But there are so many missed opportunities for fantastic Keaton moments here! Early on, they put him on a train but don’t give him any stunt work to do, instead focusing on a mix-up that occurs when he gets separated from Elvira and her mother. Later, cheap jokes are made about his character’s last name, with everyone on the set of Elvira’s film calling him “Mr. Butt.”
The film is in general amusing, not too bad of a watch, but I can’t get over the fact that they gave Buster — one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest stars — so little to work with. If you’re looking for one of Keaton’s greats, look elsewhere, though this film does make for a decent diversion on a dull afternoon. The score: 2/5