Tomorrow on TCM: A Harold Lloyd Orgy

Tomorrow is the great silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd’s birthday and Turner Classic Movies will be observing it in fine form with this excellent cross section of his career, including two shorts, several silent features, some of his best talkies, and a late compendium that helped launch the silent comedy revival.

If my blog numbers are any measure, Lloyd is not nearly as well known today as his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I hope this well be rectified in years to come. The truth is that in many ways Lloyd’s movies are more accessible and “contemporary” than those of his peers, and frequently more laugh-out-loud funny. He’s not as “intellectual”or “artistic” as the other two, but he is a first rate movie star in every sense of the word, and essentially ruled silent comedy throughout the 1920s, a decade when Chaplin’s films, though they were among the greatest hits of all time, where few in number; and Keaton, though he released the greatest work of his career, lagged quite far behind the other two at the box office, The films are being screen during the day tomorrow. Trust me: set your DVR and check them out. Here’s the line-up:

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6:15 am (EST): From Hand to Mouth (1919)

This is an interesting one to begin with, for it is less characteristic of classic Lloyd. Much as Chaplin is sort of “doing Lloyd” in A Day’s Pleasure , released a few days before, in From Hand to Mouth seems to be “doing Chaplin”. Of course with his earlier characters Willie Work and Lonesome Luke, Lloyd had literally been imitating Chaplin. Here, he experiments with a different sort of situation for his more famous character. Rather than the “go-getter” scenarios we associate with the character, he presents us with a situation more Chaplinesque. The young man is down and out, running from the cops, stealing food, etc. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous lawyer (Snub Pollard) tries to swindle a young heriess (Bebe Daniels) out of her inheritance, then gets a gang to kidnap her. Earlier, she had helped Harold out of a jam by paying for some food he stole. Now he has the chance to repay her by summoning the police to rescue her, which he does by provoking large numbers of them to chase him, a gag he would use many times again.

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6:45 am (EST): Never Weaken (1921)

One of the best of Lloyd’s so-called “thrill comedies”, paving the way for his most famous in that line Safety Last. Like many of the best short comedies, this one is in three sections. In the first part, the plucky Harold devises ingenious ways to drum up business for his sweetie’s (Mildred Davis) boss, an osteopath. In the second he thinks his girlfriend is going to marry some other guy and he unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide. In the last part, poor unsuspecting Harold is in his office minding his own business when a crane at the construction site across the street swings a girder in the window and picks up the chair in which he’s sitting. There follows an odyssey of nightmare proportions as Harold tries to make his way to earth from the upper levels of an unfinished building with no floors, stairs or elevator.

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7:15 am (EST): Safety Last(1923)

Safety Last is the best known of Lloyd’s features, by virtue of it containing the iconic image of him hanging from the clock at the top of an office building. It is the best known of Lloyd’s “thrill pictures” — comedies in which, by virtue of a crazy set of circumstances, Lloyd finds himself on the outside of the upper floors of a skyscraper, unable to get down.Safety Last casts Lloyd as a department store clerk who wants to make good with his boss by cooking up a publicity stunt. He hires a Human Fly (professional stunt climber) to climb all the way to the top of their seventeen story building from the outside. Unfortunately, the guy he hired runs into some trouble with the police, and Harold, who’s never done this before, and certainly isn’t properly dressed or equipped, has to do the climbing himself. The hair-raising climax comprises at least a third of the picture. Indeed it is its whole point. That image of Lloyd hanging from the clock ranks with Chaplin getting caught in the gears and cogs of Modern Times as an eloquent symbol of the modern predicament. A man hanging by his maimed hand from a business tower, at the mercy of a contraption that regulates time. Unlike Chaplin, however, Lloyd doesn’t intend it that way. If a man must enslave himself to win the things society tells him he ought to have, Lloyd tells us, so be it! “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Nevertheless, you can’t help but cheer for him on that building. If most of Lloyd’s goals are illusions, the objective of escaping a horrible death seems very reasonable.

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8:30 am (EST): Girl Shy (1924)

In my opinion, Girl Shy has one of the best climaxes of any Hollywood movie. In the film, Harold plays the most bashful young man ever, who writes a how-to manual for prospective Casanovas using his own nonexistent “experience” as a guideline. It gets published –as humor – and Harold is humiliated. Meanwhile, he really loves a girl he has met, but they are divided by class. He is poor and she is rich. Thinking it is hopeless, he pretends to be the jerk he seems in his book, and dumps her. She is heartbroken and about to marry some other stuffed shirt. Then: the big scene. It seems to be adapted from Fairbanks’ 1916 The Matrimaniac, the entire plot of which is the hero’s Odyssey to stop his girl’s marriage to the wrong man. Lloyd’s version though is faster, more compressed, and contains funnier gags. Everything goes wrong for Harold as he speeds to the church to stop the wedding. He ends up taking every known form of transportation and something goes wrong with all of them. He steals about a dozen conveyances. Then he makes it to the altar in the nick of time and –as he always does—seizes the girl of his dreams as though he were a caveman. I would be beyond shocked to learn that Mike Nichols hadn’t studied the last act of Girl Shy in preparation for The Graduate.

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10:00 am (EST): The Freshman (1925)

The Freshman is up there with Safety Last as being one of Lloyd’s most lasting, definitive statements. The plot concerns Harold’s first year at college and his attempts to make good on the football team. Personally, it’s hard for me not to find his primary goal—belonging, conformity—somewhat unworthy. But it matters so much to Harold, and he is such a schlub, that you can’t help having sympathy. Lloyd even attempts (for the one and only time) moments of Chaplinesque pathos in this movie. Harold’s girl learns the students have been making fun of him and she tells him so. Harold puts on a brave face at first and then cries, and we can’t help feeling for him.  “Make them like you for what you really are,” she tells him. This message would have redeemed the film morally in my eyes if it had been carried through the picture, but then it gets abandoned. Because what ends up happening is Harold redeems himself by winning the big football game. Tenaciousness wins the day. But the message remains one of social conformity. But yet again — that may be why, it was and is one of Lloyd’s most successful pictures with the public. It’s also, not incidentally, a really good movie.

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11:30 am (EST): Speedy (1928)

Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York. Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.

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1:00pm (EST) : Welcome Danger (1929)

Co-directed by Clyde Bruckman and Mal St. Clair. Welcome Danger was originally made as a silent, then reshot to serve a market that had switched almost entirely over to talkies in just a few short months. The plot concerns Harold moving to San Francisco to step into the shoes of his late father, a legendary detective.  After the usual ups and downs, he defeats a Chinatown gang led by the great Hollywood character actor Charles Middleton (best known as Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials). Of the two versions, the silent one comes off better. The talkie is an interesting specimen, but you can’t just add speech to a silent movie and expect it to work. Since a chain of gags already moves the plot, the talking is unnecessary, even annoying. As in many talkies of this era, there are passages with no scripted dialogue but very repetitious yelling of a character’s name or a phrase. That must be a holdover from silents, when we wouldn’t have noticed what anyone was saying. It gets really annoying really fast. This amount of ad libbing turned into a sort of blind alley in the development of sound. In the early talkies, when the actors hold to the script, it’s better. Still, Welcome Danger did well at the box office because of the curiosity of audiences to hear Lloyd speak.

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3:00 pm (EST): The Milky Way (1936)

The Milky Way was Lloyd’s last independent feature, and a very respectable one (i.e., funny!) at that. He plays a bungling milk man who is misunderstood by the press to have KO’d the world champion middleweight. What he is good at, however, is ducking, and that’s enough to secure him victories, and get the girl. Interestingly, this comedy finally allows Lloyd his take on that old slapstick staple, the comedy boxing match, which had already been nailed by Arbuckle (The Knockout, 1914), Chaplin (The Champion1915, and City Lights 1931), and Keaton (Battling Butler1926). Directed by the great Leo McCarey, this underrated classic features Adolph Menjou, Lionel Stander, Charles Lane et al, and featuring the first onscreen appearance of Anthony Quinn. It was later remade starring Danny Kaye as The Kid from Brooklyn (1946).

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4:30 pm (EST): The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

This is Lloyd’s last feature, made in 1947 and later retitled Mad Wednesday and re-released in 1950.

For this film producer-director-screenwriter Preston Sturges persuaded Lloyd to come out of retirement nine years after completing his last film, to recreate his role from his 1925 hit comedy The Freshman. The Freshman had ended with Harold’s character winning the big college football game, plus the girl. Presumably he has a bright future ahead of him. Sturges’s surprising conceit is that, twenty years later, Harold is not the go-getter we all projected he’d be, but an obscure clerk in a go-nowhere career. As the film opens, he is fired from even that dead-end job for his lack of drive and ambition. Despondent, he steps into a dive, where bartender Edgar Kennedy gives him his first drink. The resulting drunk sends Harold out on a spree the likes of which will be the making of him. While drunk, he uses his life savings to buy a circus. When he learns that the big top is struggling he causes citywide commotion by bringing a lion with to meet with bankers. The climax on the upper story ledge of a skyscraper is a tribute to Lloyd’s many “thrill comedies” featuring similar scenes, notably Safety Last. 

Lloyd is surprisingly terrific in the film for someone who hadn’t been before the cameras in almost a decade. In some early flashback scenes he convincingly plays himself at age 20, though he himself is 50 years old.  The film is also a Who’s Who of great character comedians of the era including Rudy ValleeFrankling Pangborn, Lionel Stander, Margaret Hamilton, Jack NortonJulius Tannen, Jimmy Conlin, etc.

Unfortunately, producer Howard Hughes pulled it from circulation shortly after its release, shot new scenes and re-cut it, re-releasing it in 1950 under the title Mad Wednesday. It didn’t do well in either released version. The version I watched surely must have been after Hughes’s tampering, for it seemed somewhat choppy, lacking the perfect shape of Sturges’s earlier comedies from the 40, more resembling the odd assembly Hughes’s had given his own movies like The Outlaw. Even with this mutilation and its checkered history, I think the movie deserves enhanced status as a classic, and is an extremely fitting final film statement for Lloyd, so everyone should see it.

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6:15 pm (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)

This compendium of old Harold Lloyd clips is vastly more important than you might think it is. For those of us over a certain age (say, 40), it was almost invariably our initial introduction to the classic work of Harold Lloyd. In the ’60s and 70s, when home video had not come out yet, and through ensuing years, when most of Lloyd’s work was not yet available on video, the most likely way to discover Lloyd was this grab bag retrospective Lloyd assembled of his own work, which was periodically screened on television. With a couple of exceptions among his early Keystones, I did not see Lloyd’s films themselves until the 1990s, when I moved to New York and caught festivals of them at the Film Forum. Nowadays, the volume of them that are available for home viewing is nothing less than staggering. Quite a reversal of affairs. At any rate, if you are still a Harold Lloyd virgin, as many people still are apparently, I would STILL recommend Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy as an excellent introduction to his films. Watch this one first, then go back and watch the others.

 

One Response to “Tomorrow on TCM: A Harold Lloyd Orgy”

  1. […] Tomorrow on TCM: A Harold Lloyd Orgy […]

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