Speedy Comes To Town
My drive to Winston-Salem last week yielded a 35mm screening of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy at the North Carolina School Of The Arts, an institution that’s been there for years and more recently added a film studies program. A few name actors trained at NCSA. Jean Arthur once taught briefly after retirement from the hurly-burly of the silver screen. I remember she got in trouble with local police for turning loose a chained dog barking in someone’s yard. The place is well fortified and they won’t let you park on campus. I had to leave my car at a YWCA down the road and ride a bus in. That’s a lot of trouble to see Harold but I kept reminding myself he was worth it, especially as the theatre was surprisingly jammed with a reported 263 patrons (at $25 per ticket). Speedy was the culmination of The RiverRun Film Festival, an annual weeklong unspooling of independent shorts and features. They usually drop a few oldies in. Speedy was their silent choice for 2009. The Alloy Orchestra performed with the show and they were outstanding. It was RiverRun’s last night and the host promised relief from a documentary just run about horrors of meatpacking. He said Harold Lloyd was less well known than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, a preamble I imagine comes with any screening of a Lloyd comedy. This audience was open to Harold and love him they did … you could feel the excitement of discovering something (wonderful) they’d never heard of. Speedy’s surefire for slapstick guaranteed to please, and here it wrapped with a standing, whistling ovation few anticipated going in. Working his audience (preferably large ones) was mastery Lloyd had down eighty years ago and it still clicks. If a wide public could be talked into sampling this guy, we’d have a nation filled with Harold-philes. Outgoing patrons gushed over him. Where had this fabulous comic been all their lives? Some given to pretension speculated over Chaplin and Keaton as being more the thinking man’s comics. Oh, Keaton was definitely more cerebral, somebody said. NSCA screened The General a few seasons back, so they knew from Buster, and I wondered then if maybe he was one they more admired than enjoyed. There’s no such ambivalence about Harold Lloyd. Just seating a crowd puts you over the hump. He’ll bring them all home from there.
Harold might be the safest bet of the big three. They’ll cry with Charlie and gasp at Buster, but Lloyd is most accessible, quite the irony when you consider how inaccessible his films were for so many decades. Harold's open and sunny and easy to identify with. He bustles about in a 20’s milieu we’ve lost and wish we could get back. Speedy drives horse trolleys, visits Coney Island and hangs with Babe Ruth. New York is a big hammock he swings in and you come away wishing it were possible to live in such a place. Lloyd’s characters are resourceful, sometimes ruthlessly so, in ways we particularly enjoy today. You know he’ll find some ingenious avenue out of the pickle. There was a gag in Speedy about Harold tracking villains via his dog having torn the seat off trousers that just couldn’t be devised short of brilliant ingenuity Lloyd’s team routinely applied to story constructs. Last week’s laughter came of intelligence flattered in addition to ribs being tickled. Harold never took his public for morons nor fed them with spoons like those jammed down throats in modern comedies. One woman exiting Speedy was near desperate to know more about Lloyd and where can I get his films? The bus ride back found converts jotting down titles they’d order on DVD next day.
Harold disappeared in part because he was too rich to fret unduly over reviving his pics and way immersed in hobbies more distracting than movie work he’d quit long before. Keaton needed money old films generated and so traveled with and promoted them. Chaplin liked money period and was always on alert to get his library back into theatres, despite being shut out of them on occasion due to personal/political controversies. Lloyd dithered over youth’s reaction to his comedies, reassured by warm reception at varied college shows from the forties right up until he died in 1971, but always playing close to the vest when it came to wider availability. Tinkering with negatives was another hobby, maybe one he’d have better left alone, but at least Harold preserved his loot, as was well attested by NCSA's glistening 35mm Speedy (and someone there told me the rental was $750, a fair figure considering expense of generating prints). Lloyd generally stopped short of full-on reissues. He’d announce, then pull back. Harold Lloyd apparently thinks this is a good time for comedy, said The New York Times as lead-in to a 1949 worldwide revival program, later cancelled, for seven of his features (only Movie Crazy left gates in the US). Lloyd generated 60’s compilations a la Robert Youngson with elegant scoring (Walter Scharf) and narration to surpass his model, but Youngson knew variety was the spice of such programs and never devoted his paste-up features to just one clown. Lloyd (rightfully) didn’t trust television to do right by Harold and for the most part withheld broadcast rights. That, of course, would have served his legacy best despite presentation concerns, as refusal to share with viewers at home was the very thing that caused posterity’s boat to sail without him.
Harold was the man hanging off a clock in stills one wished could move but never did for most of us growing up in the sixties. You’d think ego if nothing else would keep Lloyd thumping for his library, but here instead was real-life's Horatio Alger long transitioned to new worlds he’d conquer, a twentieth century’s epitome of energy and accomplishment. Comedy and his character’s part in it were slide rules extending from the producing corporation he oversaw to bank windows visited often (only Chaplin's stuff grossed higher, though Lloyd bested him for being far more prolific). He permitted Paramount to distribute and saw that advertising guns pointed mostly his way (as here with dapper offscreen Harold confirming Speedy’s first placement in the studio’s 1928 product annual). It took Lloyd’s passing to open reservoirs to audiences diminished for having waited so long, and that’s the bugaboo that’s affected his legacy since. With initial fans dead or soon to be (you’d be pushing ninety to remember Speedy first-run), there’s memory of largely botched Time/Life episodes for seventies’ TV, then Lloyd properties licensed to Blackhawk Films in the wake of a silver crisis propelling said 8mm prints beyond collector budgets. Harold’s granddaughter managed the trust he’d set up and spent wads cleaning negatives. Getting some of that back was tough in a marketplace where Harold Lloyd’s name translated mostly to Huh? TCM ran said reclaimed assets while fans mining them (on video and DVD-R) clamored after legit release. 2005 saw belated arrival on DVD, too late for commercial resurgence but timely enough for enthusiasts who thought they’d seen comedy’s every potential. Most remarkable about Lloyd’s stash is quality he maintained through starring years, a hot streak running from shorts to the end of silent featuring and then some. You could play Speedy plus a dozen other of these and bring the house down. I wish we had more Lloyd movie nights nearby, but it takes dollars to present them, what with print costs, paying accompanists, etc. Most of you live in areas heavier with shows like this. Maybe Speedy will come your way soon. It was surely for me the filmgoing highlight (so far) of 2009.