A red letter day! Today marks the anniversary of the oldest surviving Harold Lloyd comedy Just Nuts.
Just Nuts featured Lloyd in his first comedy screen character, prior even to Lonesome Luke. His name here is Willie Work, and this character was devised so early it is previous even to Lloyd’s brief stint (and schooling) at Keystone. Just Nuts was the only one of the Willie Work comedies that Hal Roach was able to sell to distributors. Watching the surviving film, it is easy to see why the others didn’t sell. Just Nuts is amateurish enough — imagine what the other ones were like.
If you’ve seen any of the Lonesome Luke comedies, you know that Lloyd was consciously doing his best to imitate Chaplin in that character. Well, with Willie Work he did that EVEN MORE, and more overtly. The costume looks more like Chaplin’s, including an unruly mat of hair, oversized shoes, etc. He reflexively tips his hat, thumbs his nose at people, spits, and so forth.
The plot is fairly aimless. Willie sees a pretty girl, follows her, then gets run down by two cars. He sits next to a sleeping man on a park bench, and steals a cigar from him, lighting a match on his neck. Then he steals his newspaper, then steals his eyeglasses to read it with. On another bench, two mashers are bothering a girl. She dislikes one, is on a date with the other. The spurned one throws a brick. It hits the sleeping man, who wakes and hits Willy. Willy hits him back with a Chaplinesque spin and winds up in a garbage can. The spurned masher hooks up with another lady who seems most willing, takes a drink from a flask, then drops it on Willy’s head. Willy falls out of the trash can. The sleeping man sits on the bench with the first couple, then falls asleep again. Willy steals a cop’s truncheon, then hits the sleeping man, who wakes and hits the young man with the girl. Willie sits with the girl. A cop comes up and hits him with club, knocking him out. More fisticuffs and nonsense, then the setting switches to café. Willy comes in, steals a beer, then the waiters throw him out. Willy sneaks back in and stabs the waiters with fork. There is a general melee. Fade out.
Just Nuts didn’t set the world on fire, but it gave Lloyd and Roach just enough encouragement to stay in the film business. Later that year they would split for a while, Lloyd serving an apprenticeship at Keystone, Roach doing the same as a director at Essanay. When they came back together to make the Lonesome Luke comedies they had a much firmer grasp of how to make successful (and professional) movies.
For more on slapstick film history, including classic Harold Lloyd comedies like “Just Nuts”, see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube