Speedy (1928)

speedy1It’s hard not to appreciate Harold Lloyd. His life was less tumultuous than Buster Keaton and during the 1920s he was more prolific than Charlie Chaplin. So if you look back at his career you can easily argue that he was not playing third fiddle to the other silent titans. He was their equal in many respects, and it’s only over the years that he’s fallen behind the others. But he deserves acknowledgment at the very least and his comedies such as Speedy make his case with rousing gimmicks and gags aplenty.

The film opens with Pop Dillon, the last of the horse-drawn streetcar drivers. He’s a kindly old man who lives with his radiant granddaughter Jane, who is faithfully by his side. But a corrupt railroad magnate is trying to buy him out, and he’s ready to go to great lengths to get what he wants. It’s about what we expect to happen, so the real entertainment factor comes with how we get there.

Enter Speedy (Harold Lloyd) a baseball-loving soda-jerk turned crazy cab driver and the sweetheart of Jane. It’s true that he starts out working the coffee counter with great dexterity while keeping up to date with the latest box scores of Murder’s Row. However, after a major blunder, he knows he won’t have a job when he gets back. Rather than stew in his misfortune, Speedy heads out on a Sunday afternoon in Coney Island with Jane. This proves to be a wonderful aside rather like in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and there are a lot of great little gags being pulled by Lloyd, and others occur unwittingly. He tricks a myriad of folks with a dollar bill on a string and a crab in the pocket causes a lot of chaos. He even picks up a new unwanted friend in a hungry dog. But perhaps most of all the sequence is a fun nostalgia trip to the fair, showing off all the attractions circa 1928. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it still looks like quite a lot of fun.

speedy3The other section of the story begins with Speedy garnering a job as a cab driver, but he has an unfortunate aptness for picking up tickets. He does, however, pick up some precious cargo in Babe Ruth (playing himself) and it leads to a wonderfully raucous ride to Yankee Stadium courtesy of Speedy’s crazy maneuvering through the streets of New York. Even Lou Gehrig sneaks in on the fun with a wry grin.

As the last order of business Speedy must save Pop’s cart from utter extinction and what follows is a rip-roaring brawl in the streets between the young thugs and the old-timers. Instead of being suspended from a clock, Lloyd must race against it to get Pop’s stolen livelihood back to its track in time. Once more he puts his madcap driving to good use.

Speedy lives up to its name and certainly justifies the popularity of Harold Lloyd. Its strengths include a plethora of sight gags that play off the audience’s sense of dramatic irony. Put them in the hands of such a nerdish icon and it spells true comedic gold. It’s Lou Gehrig approved no less.

4/5 Stars

Still Mine (2012)

stillmine1This is not a powerhouse film, but it’s bolstered by a powerhouse performance from James Cromwell. His career has always been one worth watching. He’s been prolific for many years now in films like Babe, L.A. Confidential, The Queen, The Artist, and so on. And yet he’s never been a star, simply a wonderful character actor making each film he appears in all the more interesting. He has an imposing frame, often a quiet persona, and a relatable quality.

Still Mine is certainly a romance film, but it’s about one man almost as much as it’s about a couple. Craig Morrison (Cromwell) is well into his 80s now and he is still living in a farmhouse with his wife of 60s years. Her health and memory are quickly deteriorating and he, along with all his children, knows it. He resolves to build her a newer, smaller farmhouse that will be easier to manage.

We like him as an individual because he still has ties to the old world and the way it used to be. He doesn’t beat around the bush, and he gets fed up with the impracticality of modern-day bureaucracy. He’s proud and independent. His idol was Babe Ruth, and he has a great passion for lumber because he father was a shipbuilder long ago.

That’s why when his new project hits roadblock after roadblock in the form of building code violations, he’s peeved and annoyed. But he tries to push through, going past them, because that’s his way. His main opposition is building inspector Mr. Daigle, who although he might be a sour apple and a stickler for rules, is by no means a villain.

stillmine2So in a sense, this story is twofold. We get to see the ties that bind two people together even after so many years of marriage. They are so closely knit. They can have their tiffs, they can get frustrated, but ultimately there is an almost insurmountable amount of faith and affection that holds them together. It makes the mundane beautiful and yet at times, it becomes difficult to watch because Craig knows that his other half is slowly losing her edge, and yet he still loves her so deeply. He gets angry with her, but he has an extraordinary capacity to love her still.

But also this film is interesting because we get to watch the resolve of a man on another front. He wants to keep busy. Despite his advanced years, he wants to do this on his own. It’s the principle of the thing, and he sticks with his convictions no matter what children, neighbors, or members of the bureaucracy say. Although Cromwell still feels fairly young and spry, I didn’t mind him playing a man quite a bit older than himself. Also, the ending including Mumford’s “After the Storm,” was a rather surprising inclusion, but not a bad thing. It adds a contemplative tone to this film’s resolution.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

b9d42-prideofthe3Before superheroes headlined any Marvel or DC blockbuster, it was real life heroes that audiences wanted to see. No pastime was quite as popular as baseball and in that era Lou Gehrig was one of the titans along with Babe Ruth and the rest of the Yankees. You see this film is less of a biography (It certainly is not completely accurate), and more of a visual eulogy to a contemporary hero. The prologue explains as much:

“This is the story of a hero of the peaceful paths of everyday life. It is the story of a gentle young man who, in the full flower of his great fame, was a lesson in simplicity and modesty to the youth of America. He faced death with that same valor and fortitude that has been displayed by thousands of young Americans on the far-flung fields of battle. He left behind him a memory of courage and devotion that will ever be an inspiration to all men. This is the story of Lou Gehrig” ~ Damon Runyon

As a modern viewer, I am just happy I can recognize baseball names like Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, and of course, Babe Ruth. When audiences went out to see this film starring Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright back in the day, they were practically living it. World War II had already heated up and one of the great American heroes had died the previous year. Lou Gehrig was all those things in the prologue and more making it hard to get it all into a film.
Like any other superhero, he has an origin story beginning with his childhood in Manhattan, living with his poor German immigrant parents. His domineering mother convinces him to go to Columbia for engineering, but he soon ends up in the big leagues because of his tremendous skill with a bat. He is often a shy and even awkward young man, but he loves his parents and he can sure play ball. It’s that last point that gains him a lot of respect after a less than graceful start as “Tanglefoot.”
He soon becomes a lethal one-two punch with Babe Ruth, after initially being dismissed as the rookie and a boob. Journalist Sam Blake (Walter Brennan) has a major influence in Gehrig’s life and never loses faith in the young man’s abilities. He also does Lou a favor by introducing him to an attractive young Chicago socialite named Eleanor Twitchell (Teresa Wright), who finds Gehrig quite ridiculous at first. Soon, however, a budding romance begins with the often reserved Gehrig falling for the vibrant and vivacious young Eleanor. He gets engaged, married, hits two home runs for a little boy, and wins a world series. A lot of his other exploits are laid out for us too and the trophies and accolades start stacking up. All of this happens during the happy times when Gehrig is on top of the world, first with Murder Row and then The Bronx Bombers.
But all fairy tales must come to an end, and Lou Gehrig’s is especially tragic. He plays an, at that time, unheard of 2,000 consecutive games, but he also falls into a rapid decline. Eleanor looks on helplessly as her husband begins to deteriorate in front of her eyes, and the fans know something is not right. Gehrig gets examined and learns he has ALS, but very little is known about it. Much less can be done to treat it.
His final appearance at Yankee Stadium came on Lou Gehrig Day in 1939. That day he gave his “Luckiest Man Speech,” and he walked off the field for good. Gary Cooper delivers the partially revised dialogue with a calm and clear delivery that seems to truly epitomize Gehrig. Although he is playing the man, it is almost as if he is giving a eulogy.
That’s a fitting ending because we do not need to see the suffering or the death. What we remember is the wonderfully full life he led. Perhaps this film had more cultural relevance back in 1942, but I would argue that it is still a stirring, heart-wrenching film. You have a small heart if you cannot find a place in it for this one.
Although he was not too good at baseball, in the other sequences Cooper seems like the perfect man to embody Gehrig. He is distinctly American, strong, quiet and he also has a pleasant charm with a comical streak in him. The look on his face when he realizes his weakness tears the heart. Teresa Wright had many fine performances early on in her career, but I will step out on a limb and say that this is probably the best one. She has so much spirit and at the same time, she is funny with a noticeable tenderness. She is the perfect wife and a wonderful actress to embody Eleanor Gehrig.
In a society that places so much interest in make-believe superheroes, I don’t mind taking some time to acknowledge a real one. We were the lucky ones Lou, thanks. Let anyone and everyone who does the Ice Bucket Challenge know who you are. You deserve to be remembered. Always.
4.5/5 Stars

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig and Teresa Wright as his wife, this movie honors Gehrig’s life after a tragic death from ALS. From the time he was a boy, Lou could play ball but his immigrant mother wants him to become an engineer. The quiet, young man goes to Columbia and plays some ball. There he is seen by the Yankees who agree to sign him. Despite her disapproval at first his mom becomes his biggest fan. With the Yankees Lou seems slightly out of place being an introvert. Pretty soon he meets Eleanor Twitchell (Wright) however and then gains a spot as the starting first baseman. The two of them fall in love and get married as Gehrig flourishes in the shadow of Babe Ruth. With his career still going strong, Gehrig becomes captain and plays 2,000 straight games. It cruelly comes to an end when he begins feeling weak and is diagnosed with ALS. His career is over and yet in his farewell speech Gehrig gratefully considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. He walked out of the limelight and died soon after, dearly missed. This is one of those truly moving films.

“I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” You just cannot make up stuff like that. Here’s to you Lou!

4.5/5 Stars