Lloyd brought an essential sweetness to his films.
When a discussion turns to silent movie comedies, three names invariably dominate the conversation: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Each had a distinctive style, of course, and you may prefer one brand of comedy to another, but each achieved greatness on their own terms.
I’m a big fan of Lloyd, and not just because, like me, he’s a Nebraska native (he’s from Burchard, I’m from Hastings). Lloyd brought an essential sweetness to his films, particularly when playing his “glass” character, an average guy whose good looks were only somewhat disguised by his large, round glasses. In fact, his silent films are the equivalent of the old-style feel-good musicals so memorably evoked in The Drowsy Chaperone: they provide pleasant, reliable entertainment that can temporarily take you away the complexity and difficulties we all must face in the real world.
Lloyd’s comedies were also distinguished by amazing stunt work (usually performed by Lloyd himself, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that he lost his right thumb and forefinger in 1919 in an accident involving a prop bomb), and he certainly knew how to keep the action moving and the audience interested. Another bonus: witty title cards that set the tone for each movie (e.g., For Heaven’s Sake is introduced with a card stating that “Every city has two districts – Uptown, where people are cursed with money – and Downtown, where they are cursed without it.”).
Who can forget Lloyd’s antics while dangling from the arm of a gigantic clock, apparently many stories above the ground, in Safety Last? Or his manic runs, only sometimes toward the correct end zone, as a hapless college football player in The Freshman? Even Lloyd’s minor films typically include brilliant sequences, so there’s no need to confine your viewing to just his greatest hits. To that end, a selection of Harold Lloyd films have recently been made available for home viewing through iTunes by Random Media and Harold Lloyd Entertainment.
Seven features are included in this release: Dr. Jack (1922), Why Worry? (1923), Safety Last! (1923), The Freshman (1925), For Heaven’s Sake (1926), The Kid Brother (1927), and Speedy (1928). Eight shorts are also available in two programs, with the first program including “An Eastern Westerner” (1920), “High and Dizzy” (1920) and “Never Weaken” (1921), and the second including “Take a Chance” (1918), “Young Mr. Jazz” (1919), “The Marathon” (1919), “Bumping into Broadway” (1919) and “His Royal Slyness” (1920).
In Dr. Jack, directed by Fred Newmeyer and produced by Hal Roach, Lloyd plays a small-town doctor who is gifted with common sense and a real concern for his patients, both traits that, while admirable, have not made him rich. In contrast, the villain of the piece is the evil Dr. Ludwig von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne), who makes his substantial living off a single patient, the “Sick-Little-Well-Girl” (Mildred Davis, who married Lloyd in 1923). In truth, she’s not sick, and he’s not much of a doctor, but that doesn’t prevent the amount of his annual bill from approaching, as a title card informs us, that of the German war debt (a reminder that all was not sweetness and light in the Roaring Twenties). It’s a minor Lloyd film, but enjoyable, and particularly interesting if you know anything about the history of depression as a “woman’s illness.”
Why Worry? is equally slight but also enjoyable, and like Dr. Jack clocks in at about one hour. It also shares the theme of imaginary illness, although the patient, in this case, is a rich businessman, Harold Van Pelham (Lloyd), who “has taken so many pills he rattles when he walks.” There’s nothing wrong with Van Pelham, but he thinks there is and decides to spend some time on the island of “El Paradiso” to regain his health (an onscreen map indicates that El Paradiso is located in the Pacific Ocean, west of Chile, but the local population dress like Mexicans from Central Casting, complete with serapes and sombreros). He’s accompanied by a nurse (Jobyna Ralston, who starred in several other Lloyd films), and arrives in the midst of a revolution. Of course, it’s the comedic type of revolution that can be quelled by a few random individuals, including a giant played by John Aasen.
Safety Last! is one of Lloyd’s best films, combining a touching romantic plot with some amazing stunt work. Lloyd is joined in the cast by human fly Bill Strother, who provided Lloyd with the inspiration for this film. Lloyd plays “The Boy” (characters are given expressionist-style descriptions in many Lloyd films; in this one, Mildred Davis plays “The Girl” and Strother “The Pal”), a small-town guy who just wants to succeed in the big city. He shares a room with Strother and works at a department store while courting Davis’ character by pretending to be a big shot. When the store owner offers a $1,000 reward for the best publicity stunt, Lloyd suggests that he will climb the outside of the building (human fly acts and similar stunts were popular at the time). In fact, Lloyd plans to have his pal Strother do the climbing, but things don’t work out as planned, as before you know it, there’s Lloyd dangling from the clock face, apparently hundreds of feet above the ground.
The Freshman is another solid comedy film, featuring Lloyd as a naïve character who just wants to be popular at “Tate University,” described in a title card as “a large football stadium with a college attached.” True to that description, you never see anyone in this film studying or attending class, and in fact, everyone seems to be majoring in sociability (some credit this film with kicking off a craze for college films in Hollywood). In his quest for popularity, Lloyd takes as his models the fictional character Frank Merriwell and the hero of a film called “The College Hero,” eventually going out for football because that’s what popular films and books tell him to do. A male equivalent of a mean girl, “The College Cad” (Brooks Benedict), works to make Lloyd’s life miserable while a sweet young thing named Peggy (Jobyna Ralston) tries to steer him in the right direction with that age-old advice to just be yourself. A highlight of The Freshman is an extended sequence set during a football game, filmed at the Rose Bowl and featuring Lloyd performing a variety of stunts and comic routines.
For Heaven’s Sake is an unabashed “gag film” in which the storyline is secondary a series of stunts and gags that keep coming at a rapid pace. Lloyd plays a millionaire who can’t seem to find enough ways to spend his money. Due to some rather improbable circumstances, he ends up funding an inner-city mission run by Brother Paul (Paul Weigel), identified in the credits as “The Optimist.” Of course, Brother Paul has a pretty daughter (Jobyna Ralston), the mission has a number of picturesque “bums” in attendance, and Lloyd’s character becomes pals with a gang of jewel thieves because that’s how things work in Harold Lloyd comedies. For Heaven’s Sake was one of the most successful films of the silent era, and it’s still fun to watch today.
In Kid Brother, Lloyd plays yet another spin on the little guy who gets overlooked, as Harold Hickory, the younger brother of a family distinctly where the highest value is placed on brawn. Unfortunately, Harold is distinctly lacking in this characteristic: while his father (Walter James) and brothers (Leo Willis and Olin Francis) are engaged in “manly” activities like forestry, Harold performs tasks stereotypically identified with women, such as washing clothes and churning butter. This is a plot-heavy film: a medicine show run by “Flash” Farrell (Eddie Boland) and starring strongman Sandoni (Constantine Romanoff) and dancer Mary Powers (Jobyna Ralston) comes to town, Harold is mistaken for the sheriff, some money disappears, and it all ends in one heck of an action sequence (but happily, of course).
Speedy is Lloyd’s last silent film to have a theatrical release and earned director Ted Wilde a nomination for Best Director of a Comedy (a category that no longer exists). It’s an effective film and is particularly notable because it was partially shot on location in New York City (most of Lloyd’s features were shot in California). A title card introduces the location: “New York, where everybody is in such a hurry that they take Saturday’s bath on Friday so they can do Monday’s washing on Sunday.” In opposition to this hurry-up trend is the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York, owned by Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff). Pop’s granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy) is the girlfriend of Harold “Speedy” Swift (Lloyd), who does his best to save the streetcar line from the big evil corporation who wants to put the little guy out of business. Highlights include a wild chase scene through New York City traffic, a visit to Coney Island by Speedy and Jane, and a guest appearance by Babe Ruth (who tells Lloyd, after a trip in his cab, “If I ever want to commit suicide, I’ll call you.”). | Sarah Boslaugh