GRANDMA’S BOY (1922)
The brilliant cycle of ’20s silent feature films was kicked off by Chaplin’s The Kid (’21). But Harold Lloyd was the first silent film comedian to make feature-length silent films full-time without jettisoning the improvisational, gag-oriented methodology of short reeler slapstick. (Chaplin wouldn’t return to feature films until production on The Gold Rush began in 1924, and Keaton’s The Saphead (’20) was too stage-play-oriented to allow him to cut loose with his brilliant brand of slapstick.) The situation in Grandma’s Boy – Lloyd plays the shy coward who musters up the courage to fight the malevalent tramp who’s been menacing the town – is hand-me-down material: as early as the mid-’teens Charles Ray and Richard Barthelmess had been playing film variations of the shy young boy who undergoes a rite of passage to manhood. But Lloyd had started out as a low comedian – a Chaplin imitator – and had been working his way toward a fusion of conventional sentimental narrative and slapstick farce. No one had ever attempted that before, and what Lloyd achieved – the development of sustained, elaborate physical comedy routines as an idiom to convey situations and characters – was wholly original. The distinctive traits of Lloyd’s comedies are all here: the bouts of humiliation; the mingling of physical comedy and courtship rituals, and the prolonged, often brutal violence of his encounters with the tramp and with the slick, bullying rival for the affection of the girl. During the romantic scenes with the girl in her parents’ parlour, kittens wander in and start licking his shoes (they had been shined with goose grease); years later, F. Scott Fitzgerald would cite that gag as an example of how charming and ingenious Hollywood films could be given the most mundane of situations. And the fight with the tramp has an almost symbolic resonance: it’s as if the low comedy tendencies in Lloyd were fighting his genteel tendencies. His triumph was to integrate them without sacrificing either.
DR. JACK (1922)
Lloyd’s first premeditated feature length comedy. He’s a cheerful country doctor who resorts to self-help cures and cracker barrel philosopher bromides to treat his patients. He’s a sunny, indefatigable optimist: this is the one film where Lloyd comes across as the All-American Boy film critics and historians have derided him for being (his more famous films of the ‘twenties are darker in content than most people realize). There’s nothing driving the Lloyd character, as there is in his best films, so there’s no sustained momentum: it’s a hit-and-miss affair. Still, there’s some classic bits: the opening sequence involving Lloyd’s frantic efforts to make a house call is a beautiful little chase; it’s a blueprint for the masterful climactic sequence he would make two years later in Girl Shy (1924). And his romantic encounters with the girl who’s under the care of a pompous, medicine-prescribing quack – Lloyd’s attempt to rescue the girl from her predicament takes up the last third of the film – contain that delicate amalgam of romantic comedy and physical farce that Lloyd did better than any of his contemporaries. And, best of all, there’s a sequence involving a poker game among old cronies that is as intricately constructed and as ingeniously closed out as any sequence in silent film comedy up to that time.
SAFETY LAST (1923)
Harold is the small town boy who goes to the big city to make good. He works as a dry goods clerk in a retail department store and writes letters to his sweetheart back home, who’s Mary Pickford pure but a bit of a virago, and he has to lie to her about the promotions he’s getting, and spend all his pay on gifts for her. During the last third of the film he has to pretend to be a human fly and climb the store he works for as a publicity stunt; his buddy, a steelworker, was supposed to climb the building but has to dodge a cop, and promises to switch with Harold between floors – but they never do. From these conventional elements Lloyd, Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, Lloyd’s co-directors, fashion one of the most memorable and terrifying sequences in film history. Almost everybody who writes about Lloyd tells you what a sunny optimist he was compared to Chaplin and Keaton, and how this film is some kind of primer on the success ethic in the Decade of Prosperity. What film were they watching? Fear and hysteria drive the film from first frame to last, and the climb is the literal embodiment of the character’s predicament. And the clock sequence – as all the world knows, Lloyd ends up, in the midst of the climb, dangling from the minute hand of a giant clock, causing the clock face to pop loose from its casing – has taken on a life of its own. It has become a symbol for the fear and dread underlying the success ethic – the nausea of vertigo. It’s the American pop version of Munch’s The Scream.
WHY WORRY? (1923)
The best silent comedy you’ve never seen. Lloyd is a rich hypochondriacal nitwit who travels to the Latin American village of Paradiso for a rest cure with his nurse and valet. A ruthless American desperado and his band of mercenaries terrorize the sleepy village, and Lloyd strolls blithely through the first half of the film oblivious to the mayhem around him. It’s a characterization no one associates with Lloyd, but it was a common one during the ‘twenties: Douglas Fairbanks played Bertie van Alstine, the prototype of the character, on the Broadway stage; when the play was filmed as The Saphead in 1920, Fairbanks suggested that Keaton play the role; and Keaton and Lloyd played variants of the rich young twit throughout the ‘twenties. What’s amazing about this film is its inspired, sustained lunacy. Lloyd wins the affection of a real-life giant by pulling out a rotten tooth, and the giant tags alongside Lloyd like some massive, ingratiating puppy dog. Richard Schickel, in his book on Lloyd, suggested that this is the one silent comedy that anticipates the corny-surrealism of films of the early ‘thirties like Duck Soup and Million Dollar Legs; but it more closely resembles the sublime anarchic sweetness of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (Herriman had his office on the Roach lot at the time, and he was buddies with H.M. Walker, the title writer on the Lloyd comedies, so uncredited contributions by Herriman to the Lloyd films and, later, the Laurel and Hardy shorts are not improbable). The film also anticipates the kinetic virtuosity of the early Disney and Fleischer cartoons. Why Worry? is virtually unknown today except by Lloydophiles, and it was not the film that contemporary audiences expected from Lloyd after the high-rise pyrotechnics of Safety Last (released the same year), but it was influential on other performers and filmmakers upon its release. When Eddie Cantor appeared onstage in Whoopee! in 1928, his persona owed much to Lloyd’s character in Why Worry? (actually, they’re derived from the same source ~ a magazine serial and a subsequent stage play ~ but Lloyd never credited the playwright and was sued over it). In 1924, Russian director Lev Kuleshov released The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, a landmark in Russian feature filmmaking, and that film was probably inspired by Why Worry?. Nearly a half a century later, it may have inspired Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971).
GIRL SHY (1924)
A delight and one of the least appreciated silent comedies of the ‘20s. When Howard Hawks once declared that he studied the films of Harold Lloyd in learning his craft, Girl Shy is the kind of film Hawks was talking about. Harold is the stuttering tailor from the small town who’s too shy to attend the local dance, but furtively works on a manuscript on the secret of lovemaking. Writing the book in his attic allows for dream sequences in which Lloyd conquers (and parodies) the popular female movie prototypes of the period, like the Theda Bara-ish Vamp and the flapper type. On the train to the big city to drop his manuscript off to the publisher he meets Jobyna Ralston, a real-life ingenue. This was Ralston’s second film with Lloyd, but the first in which he develops with her his most unique contribution to silent film comedy: the fusion of courtship rituals and elaborate physical comedy routines. The comedy undercuts the sappiness of the romance, and enforces it, too: it’s the perfect vehicle for the expression of his character’s desires, and his exasperation in attaining them. And Ralston plays off Lloyd beautifully; with her long, soft, flowing curls, bud mouth, and gorgeous, sensitive eyes, she suggests a luscious, ripely sensuous (though still demure) version of the Gish/Pickford Victorian childwoman of the ‘teens. She makes the courtship scenes believable and touching. There’s a scene where they meet up near a pond, and the profusion of sexual imagery – animals in the wild, lush flora, and a pole sticky with a contagion of sap that gets all over Lloyd’s hands – is semi-intentional, and hilarious. (The great Japanese director Ozu re-worked the sticky pole gag, as well as a number of other Lloyd sequences, in his early films.) The meandering romantic flavor of the piece is capped by a more conventional sequence of Lloyd derring-do: Jobyna’s about to marry a bigamist, and Lloyd has to rush to the city by car, motorcycle, trolley and horse to stop it. The chase, which was to inspire the filming of the chariot race in Ben Hur the following year, is one of the finest ever filmed. It also inspired the ending of The Graduate (1967).
HOT WATER (1924)
A bit of a regression for Lloyd at this stage in the development of feature film comedy. Lloyd plays a put-upon husband who’s saddled with annoying in-laws. The first segment involves Lloyd, a bundle of grocery packages, a live turkey he won at a raffle at the grocery store and a crowded trolley car; the second involves the demolition of his brand new car in an outing with his wife and in-laws; and the third, and most deliriously frantic, sequence involves the mistaken belief that he’s poisoned his mother-in-law. It’s three two-reelers strung together; had Charley Chase graduated to silent feature films, this is what his first effort would have looked like. It’s not Lloyd’s territory, at least not during the mid-’twenties. The car demolition sequence would have been better off in a Laurel and Hardy short (with Edgar Kennedy as the traffic cop in the middle of a busy downtown Los Angeles intersection). And the interplay between Lloyd and his in-laws – a child brat, a shrewish mother-in-law and a good-for-nothing brother-in-law – is more suited to that master of domestic discord, W.C. Fields.
THE FRESHMAN (1925)
Lloyd’s college comedy, with no classroom or professor or textbook in sight. Lloyd almost always used his own first name in his films, but the surname in this film, Lamb, gives you an intimation of what the film’s really about. Lloyd plays his college boy as so caught up in the popular image of what college is supposed to represent during the ‘twenties – a popularity contest, with the winner being crowned Big Man on Campus – that he deludes himself into thinking that he can win the student body over. (It’s an image more suited to the Hollywood star system of the ‘twenties than to campus life.) The students, realizing at once that Harold Lamb is a self-deluded fool, string him along, and he really does believe he’s on his way to becoming the campus idol. Like Lloyd’s other celebrated work of the period, Safety Last (1923), this film is always described in works on film comedy as a sunny crowd-pleaser, with Lloyd as the penultimate ‘twenties go-getting optimist. But it’s really a humiliation fest: the audience knows full well that the character is the campus laughingstock, and the film is quite cruel in its treatment of the character’s naivete. The cruelty is fully realized in a literally brutal sequence where Lloyd, anxious to make the football squad, serves as a tackling dummy for the team when the real tackling dummy, a jury-rigged affair, falls apart. Lloyd repeatedly takes full contact body shots that lay him flat on the dirt. It’s the most dangerous sequence he ever filmed: any one of the tackles could have broken his neck. The culmination of his self-delusions and the charade perpetrated by the students comes at the Fall Frolic, where his loosely-basted tuxedo falls apart. It’s one of those marvels of timing, editing, and ingenious gag construction that Lloyd is justly famous for; it’s also a metaphor for the character’s predicament, since the tuxedo falls apart at the same time that the charade is exposed, and Lloyd realizes that, far from becoming the Big Man on Campus, he is the campus fool. It’s like Carrie (’74) with gags instead of gore. After that revelation, the football game in which he redeems himself by showing his mettle and scoring the winning touchdown seems anti-climactic; and feels contrived and arbitrary in its gag construction. It’s as jury-rigged as the tackling dummy, and fails to obliterate the pain and humiliation of the character’s ordeal. Jerry Lewis’ variants of the comedy of humiliation can be traced to this film (and other Lloyd films as well), although Lloyd always has been poison to the kind of film scholars who study Lewis assiduously, so they never make the Lloyd-Lewis connection.
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE (1926)
Lloyd’s first film to be distributed by Paramount, and not up to his usual standards. He reprises the role of the rich young idler he played in Why Worry? (1923), but, aside from a stunning opening sequence involving the demolition of a new car ~ a variant of the train ploughing into the prefabricated house in Keaton’s One Week (1920) ~ it’s a film of scattered, aimless energy. Lloyd seems strangely aloof from most of the goings-on. He was enormously rich himself during the mid-’twenties, and perhaps he was jaded a bit: he seems to lack the energy and drive that made his earlier features so memorable. He falls in love with the daughter of a Salvation Army-type missionary who runs a lunch wagon and a storefront church for the Bowery types. There’s a classic sight gag involving the daughter (played by Jobyna Ralston, Lloyd’s leading lady in most of his feature films) lounging at night with Lloyd on what looks like a beach, with a crescent moon in the background; the camera pulls back to reveal the setting as a construction site, with the crescent moon as the neon sign of a laundry. There’s also a clever reversal of the comic chase, with Lloyd enraging a mob of Bowery toughs into following him into the storefront church for a service (they settle down and pick up the hymn books when the police arrive; and empty their pockets of freshly stolen goods when the donation plate is passed around). But the getting-Lloyd-to-the-church-on-time rush that climaxes the film, a variant of the chase in Girl Shy (1924), seems forced and arbitrary; Lloyd abdicates much of the comedy to the crew of Bowery toughs who have befriended him, and who assist him in comandeering a double-decker bus and racing it through half of Los Angeles.
THE KID BROTHER (1927)
It has the burnished glow of the great silent films of the mature period, before talkies took over. Lloyd returns to the country boy persona that kicked off his feature film career in Grandma’s Boy (1922). It’s basically Tol’able David (1921), with Lloyd playing the weak but brainy son of a hulking father, with two bearish brothers. The rusticated American fabular atmosphere is darkened by the arrival of a traveling medicine show led by a carny pitchman, his strong man assistant, and the beautiful dancing girl. The dancing girl is Jobyna Ralston, Lloyd’s leading lady throughout most of the ‘twenties, and their romantic/comedic encounters are the most inspired of all of Lloyd’s films; there’s a farewell scene, where Lloyd climbs higher and higher up a tree to see Jobyna off, that may be the most sweetly poignant sequence in silent film comedy. And Lloyd’s character – brainy and resourceful – allows him to engage in the kind of ingenious gag work we tend to associate with Buster Keaton. The opening sequence, with Lloyd retrieving laundry which had drifted into the yard of a bullying, loutish neighbour, while the laundry wafts in the breeze to catch on trees and fences, and bully in pursuit, and Lloyd outfoxing him at every turn, is almost Mozartian in its variations of pursuit, evasion and escape. And when it’s time for Harold to clean the dishes after dinner, he places the dirty dishes in a net, twirls the net in a tub of water, and dries the plates on a plank of wood resting on a fired stove; it’s a crude but artful anticipation of the dishwasher. The film flows beautifully from one incident to the next, leading to a brutal, sustained fight between Lloyd and the strong man in the decaying hull of an abandoned ship. This is Lloyd’s most satisfying integration of comedy, characterization, romance, melodrama and action.
Harold Lloyd’s last silent film (the next film, Welcome Danger , was originally completed as a silent, but the talkie revolution was in full swing, so Lloyd released it with a soundtrack). Lloyd played the country boy in his previous outing, so he switches scenarios and plays a city boy here: a New Yorker who can’t hold a steady job and is crazy for baseball. The focus of the film is on the last horse-drawn trolley car run by his girlfriend’s grandfather, and the efforts to protect the franchise and seek fair recompense from the traction magnate who wants to take over the route. There’s a group of old-timers who hang out in the car when it’s in storage, and Lloyd leads them in a riot against the goons sent to sabotage the trolley run. There’s a Capra feel to this film: a sense of the little people versus the wicked big city bosses. Lloyd, looking a bit too old to play the flip city kid, takes his girlfriend to Coney Island; it’s a loosely structured, ambling sequence, as if it were 1917 and they were making comedy out of a park, a girl and a cop. You almost get the sense of a wilful nostalgia for the old days – which talkies were on their way to obliterating. Filmed on location (for the most part), with Lloyd and his crew stealing shots from the streets of the city. One of the film’s delights is a sequence involving Lloyd, as a taxi driver, rushing Babe Ruth to the Yankee Stadium to catch a game: to see two of the most enduring icons of the ‘twenties sharing a sequence together during their halcyon days is as poignant as it is thrilling.