Girl Shy (1924)

girlshy1Harold Lloyd’s feature Girl Shy is not so much a comic gag reel as a character-driven story. The first type I would equate more with Keaton, the second feels more like the sentiment of Chaplin. Lloyd does both very well and in this case, he plays Harold, a tailor’s apprentice with a stuttering problem — which actually is very pronounced — despite the lack of sound. Of course, his nervous bouts only come along when he has the harrowing experience of interacting with the opposite sex.

Instead of attending a town-wide dance in Little Bend, Harold resolves instead to stay in his basement and type away at the novel he’s writing. It’s called “The Secret of Making Love” and it’s his manifesto for all the boys who don’t quite know how to act around girls. Really, he’s penning it for himself and within its pages, he details how to win over anyone from a vampire to the flapper. To him, it’s going to be the next great thing and we cannot help but admire his ambition — misguided as it may seem.

Aboard the local train he helps a pretty young woman (Jobyna Ralston) stowaway her dog from the conductor, and then he excitedly regales her with his book, when he’s not shaking. The lovely time is broken up when they reach their final destination, but as parting gifts, they trade a box of dog biscuits for a pack of cracker jacks. Perhaps not the most romantic of gestures, but neither one cares. In fact, Mary detours through Little Bend several more times until she finally runs into Mr. Meadows again. They sit by a pond where Harold mistakes a tortoise for a rock and gets in a bit of a sticky situation. However, the gags do not overshadow the human aspect, which is still at the forefront of our tale.

When Harold finally has his date with the publisher everyone laughs at his joke-of-a-book. It dashes all his dreams and he knows he cannot get Mary now. So he puts up a false front, not wanting to string her along, and so, of course, the heartbroken girl goes to the only other person she can. The token rich middle-aged suitor, who is stuffy and boring.

But on the advice of a proofreader, the publishers decide to spin Harold’s book as a humorous read and unbeknownst to him a check comes in the mail. He’s dejected at first because these aren’t the terms he wanted, but then he remembers Mary, and upon seeing news of her marriage, he rushes to stop the impending wedding.

girlshy2At this point Girl Shy loses its heartfelt narrative thread in favor of Lloydian acrobatics, a la Speedy, but don’t get me wrong, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable watching Lloyd frantically try to hitch a ride to the wedding by any means possible. I was half surprised he didn’t try to pull a little girl’s bike away from her because he tried about everything else imaginable. In case you hadn’t guessed, he gets the girl in the end.

Going back to Chaplin, I think he tugs at the part of our hearts that feels sympathy for the poor and unfortunate masses. Lloyd on the other hand channels a different vein, relatable to all those who have ever been rejected or made fun of for being awkward and uncool. He suggests that there is still hope for those people. I relate to the quiet stoicism of Keaton certainly, but the nerdish charm of Lloyd hits home too. I think a lot of us can relate to Girl Shy.

4/5 Star

Kid Brother (1927)

kidbrother1Kid Brother is a departure for Lloyd from the general hubbub of urban life as he finds himself on a ranch, living with his two older brothers and his father, who is the local sheriff. His surname this time around is Hickory an aptly brawny moniker for a frontiersman, except he’s hardly the physical specimen of his father and brothers. They spend their days chopping down timber and hoisting logs on their broad shoulders. Harold does his daily work collecting the laundry and ultimately chasing after it when it blows away.

He unwittingly gets himself into a jam when he puts on his father’s sheriff garb and is approached by a traveling medicine show looking for a permit to perform in the local town. Not wanting to lose face he plays the role and lets them have their show. When father catches wind he’s not very happy and sends young Harold to end the show, but he’s not much at laying down the law. Instead, they make a mockery of him, and he is truly a pitiful figure hanging helplessly by his arms at the road show.

kidbrother2But there is one person who likes him a lot. Mary, who is part of the traveling show. And Harold does a seemingly unheard of thing of inviting her to spend the night at his family residence. She does something even more unthinkable and accepts. It’s probably the happiest Harold has been in a long time, and it spells a turning point for him. Mary winds up staying somewhere else as not to cause a scandal, but nevertheless, Harold’s ego is boosted.

After his father is accused of stealing a large sum of money, the town is in an uproar. All three sons go out to try and clear his name by bringing back the culprits. Of course, it is brother # 3 who is on the right path and finds the shady members of the traveling show hiding out on a boat. This ending set piece in some ways hearkens back to Keaton’s The Navigator and Lloyd rather ingeniously subdues his foe, although he seems woefully outmatched.

He regains the family honor and earns the commendation of his family. Most importantly Harold Hickory walks off into the sunset, love in arm, rather like Chaplin, but there’s no doubt Lloyd is his own man. He wears glasses, and he’s most certainly his own creation.

In fact, it brought to mind Woody Allen’s Love and Death. Harold Lloyd makes as good a pioneer as Woody Allen makes a Russian, but then there is a great deal of comedy from appearances alone. Their personas are at odds with the worlds that they place themselves in. However, while Woody Allen is always weighed down by cynicism and fatalistic thoughts, Lloyd’s glasses character has not been besmirched by the ways of the world. He maintains his sense of innocence and hope throughout his journey. That’s what allows him to get the girl and conquer all obstacles, winning his audience over in the process. His outlook is summed up by the intertitle, “no matter what anybody else thinks, have confidence in yourself and you can’t lose.” Perhaps it’s idealistic stuff of the past, but then again 90 years ago is in the past. Maybe even today there’s at least a bit of truth we can glean from it.

4/5 Stars

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

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

sherlockjr1When I was just learning about silent comedy I would have said that it started and ended with Charlie Chaplin no questions asked. And it’s true that he most certainly is a starting point, but if you want to get even a small understanding of comedy you have to look at Buster Keaton (as well as Harold Lloyd). I’m not claiming a great deal of knowledge about silent films (I still have much to see and learn), but Keaton astounded me with his prolific output during the 1920s and his physical prowess. I did not appreciate The General (1926) that much the first time around, however, by the time I got to Our Hospitality (1923), Seven Chances (1925), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), The Cameraman (1928), The Navigator (1924), and of course this film, I completely changed my initial evaluation.

Since Sherlock Jr. is shorter than most of his other features it’s almost like Keaton cut out all the dross and what we are left with are sequences of cinematic gold. In this story about a projectionist obsessed with being a detective, there is surprising depth and inventiveness that is still magical today. The plot really is a film within a film, starting with Sherlock Jr. trying to win over the affections of his love (Kathryn McGuire) with a box of chocolates. But his rival (Ward Crane) does the same by more shady means and pins his dastardly deed on Jr. Now our hero is banished from the house and resigns himself to his projection room where he enters into a dream-filled sleep. It mirrors the film that is playing on the screen as he enters this world as a detective and fills it with all his real-life acquaintances. The fact that the girl comes back to him at the end feels rather superfluous because we automatically assume that is the case. It’s how Keaton gets there that’s ingenious

sherlockjr2It easy to marvel at some of the visuals as Buster Keaton literally leaves his body and walks onto the screen, shifting between an array of backdrops in a thoroughly entertaining sequence. He’s pulling crazy stunts without CGI mind you, and many of them put his life and welfare on the line. He tries his hand at pool with impressive skill and pulls off some amazing parlor tricks including a disappearing act that not only stumps the thugs pursuing him but the audience as well.

Even after reading a full breakdown of how he was able to literally vanish into thin air I’m still utterly baffled. Every time it causes me do a double take. Then, of course, there’s his wild ride on the handlebars of the motorcycle, which has some beautifully comic stunt work. It’s stuff you certainly would not want to try at home and it would be unthinkable today, but that was the brilliance of “The Great Stone Face.” He was literally willing to put his life on the line, and whereas Chaplin was adept at pulling at our heartstrings, the often emotionless Keaton does not try that. He wins us over with his resilience. In him, I find a figure of a very relatable temperament although he was more of a daredevil than I could hope (or want) to be. That just makes me respect and marvel at what he can do. If you want to see slapstick and sight gags at their zenith then take a look at Buster Keaton. Sherlock Jr. is always a good starting point.

5/5 Stars

Keaton and Lloyd

I have been well acquainted with the films of Charlie Chaplin which always seem to couple romance and comedy so nicely with the character of the Tramp.

However, I had seen very little of Buster Keaton and I had only heard of the name Harold Lloyd. Recently I have finally had the pleasure of taking in more of their work and I must say I have a new appreciation for them. With their respective films it is understandable how they were able to give Chaplin a run for his money. Keaton always appears as a solemn figure whether he is a Confederate soldier, a detective, and so on. He does not try and win our sympathy or affection but he is always determined to take on whatever his world throws at him. His various hilarious and often life-threatening antics cause us to cheer for his characters and in turn we also grow to respect Keaton for his talent as an actor and a director. (Recently I have been able to see Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., and Our Hospitality).

Then, there is Harold Lloyd, the number three man of the silent era comedians. Lloyd had his own persona that he developed to perfection. He was the nerdish fellow who always wore the same pair of glasses and the same hat. He makes us laugh because of his naivete and various antics including scaling a building only to dangle from a clock (Lloyd actually only had eight fingers to accomplish this feat because of an accident). This  causes us to empathize with him much like we would with Chaplin, but their styles could never be confused with each other. (I was able to watch Safety Last! and The Freshman).

That is the beauty of these three men because each one created his own legend and so each one is an icon in his own right. People might fight over who is the best of the group, but really there is no comparison since they all went in different directions. Although these films may be an acquired taste, I hope to be able to watch more in the future sometime!