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Monday, May 04, 2009

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  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 played the 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. Lloyd really is one of comedy's kings.

I ran the Dartmouth College's film society in 1976-77. The Lloyd estate released his films for screenings that year -- I think through Time/Life -- and we picked up the entire package. We ran his movies every Friday night in a big auditorium for the entire semester. The Lloyd comedies were a hit on campus whenever we provided live musical accompaniment. Usually, just a piano player, but it worked. When the piano player was unavailable, we ran the sound track that accompanied the prints. Whenever we did that, the movies bombed. The canned sound tracks were awful. Cutesy and telegraphed and cliched and painful.

So, my point: real magic happens when a great silent comedy is accompanied by great live music.

There's really nothing like it.

Tom Ruegger

3:50 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

New York's Film Forum ran a Lloyd festival about 10 years ago -- I caught "Speedy" and "The Cat's Paw." The audience loved, loved, LOVED "Speedy" -- partly because it was shot on location in NYC, but mostly because of Lloyd himself. It was the first time I'd seen any of his movies. Terrific stuff. And the pianist accompanying it was first rate, even including the "Speedy" theme used during the original release. Following the movie, the theatre manager held up large cards featuring the lyrics so we could all sing along. One of the best movie nights in NYC ever for me!

6:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's great info about your Lloyd college runs, Tom. I guess the Time/Life prints would indeed have been more palatable with the sound turned down and a live accompanist in their place. If only everyone had done that! Live music really is the finishing touch for a successful silent era revival.

East Side, I can only imagine the warm reception a New York audience would give "Speedy" with all that location work done mere blocks away. Thanks for giving us insight into what such showings were like.

I wonder what sort of viewer response TCM has had to their Lloyd showings ...

7:07 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

Speedy is great but you should check out the Kid Brother. That's my favorite Lloyd. His films are great but Harry Langdon is funnier to me...and even less known nowadays!

5:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received this e-mail today from a reader:

Volume Four of the Stooges collection includes a 1945 short titled "Booby Dupes". It starts out as a remake of "Towed in a Hole" with the Stooges as fishmongers who decide to catch their own. But while Stan and Ollie are alone in a single setting for almost the whole film, the Stooges use more locations (or cheap sets, anyway) and actors for some odd digressions.

There was another I can't find just now, where the Stooges are working undercover and Moe does a short version of Harold Lloyd's tuxedo bit from the Freshman (Larry takes the tailor's part, trying to make repairs from behind a curtain). I recall reading that Lloyd sued his former writer Clyde Bruckman for this sort of recycling but don't recall if Bruckman's name was on that particular film.

9:55 PM  

I grew up in the 1970s and was a classic comedy kid. I was fortunate to have a local PBS station run the Lloyd features as well as a narrated “clip” show called “The World of Harold Lloyd” (or something like that). It was only years later that I learned of the editing butchery contained in these offerings. And while as an adult I probably wouldn’t appreciate the soundtracks, they didn’t bother me as a kid. I guess my point is, even in compromised form, I was blessed to be introduced to the marvelous Lloyd. I was a big Chaplin kid, but in Lloyd I found someone who made me laugh more often than Chaplin… and almost as much as my favorites, Laurel & Hardy.

I’ve always preferred Lloyd to Keaton as well. With Keaton, I watch and often awe at his inventiveness – he’s an absolute genius at intricate set-ups with big payoffs – but I find myself admiring the craft more than laughing at him. Probably because I have a hard time warming up to him due to the stoic nature of the character. I guess for me the characters that most appeal to me are the put-upon everyman’s. Even Chaplin isn’t always so easily relatable – how many of us have been destitute like his Tramp character often is? But in Laurel & Hardy you have two guys just trying to get by, make it through a world they’re expected to navigate even though they don’t entirely understand it. THAT I get. And Lloyd… well, most of his characters were everyman personified. Just an honest Joe trying to do the best he can, be it in his job or his love-life, and most often, both. In a way that’s optimistic and often cheerful. And that’s why I think he endures and surprises people to this day – his “can do” characters still resonate with people.

As for Lloyd the filmmaker, he was fantastic at constructing both gags and plot devices. In fact, the way he weaved gags and plots together could be quite sophisticated and must have surprised audiences when first viewed. Many of the old comedies, as much as I love them, are patchworks of scattershot gags that don’t connect, but Lloyd seems to have taken to heart Chekhov’s admonition not to introduce something in Act 1 unless you plan to use it by Act 3. Additionally, he wasn’t afraid to take risks, as not just his “daredevil” films showed (the risks being the very real possibility of serious injury or death) but also some films with offbeat stories (like the unusual and fascinating talkie “The Cat’s Paw”).
My personal favorite falls into this category – “Why Worry.” Lloyd is the last person you’d probably expect to do a film with political subtext, but true to form, even such weighty topics as war and revolution in “Why Worry” and corporal punishment in “The Cat’s Paw” are filtered through his optimistic everyman persona.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Andy 7 said...

"Speedy" is my favorite Lloyd film, complete with the great Babe Ruth cameo appearance.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

As much as I love Buster Keaton, if my sons have a friend over and we're going to watch a silent comedy, I often break out Lloyd. The Freshman (great for kids who are into sports), Safety Last, Speedy and The Kid Brother all have worked like gangbusters. Here's something I posted at NitrateVille about the latter:

"It would convince anyone there was a future in silent movies to hear the three kids screaming and giggling and flopping about. Think of every cliche about comedy-- convulsing with laughter, howling with laughter-- and they were doing it, reminding you how long it's been since you saw a comedy that truly had that effect. My 10-year-old offered the highest praise of all-- "This is as good as the one where they tear down the house." That is, Big Business, which is universally accepted in our house as The Greatest Movie Ever Made, and trotted out for every sleepover guest we have."

11:55 PM  
Blogger Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Nobody was better than Harold Lloyd at story construction and pacing; starting with brief comic scenes that establish the characters, following them with longer sequences which advance the storyline, then building to a crescendo and breathless finale.

His characterization - "you may be brawnier, but I'm smarter, more resourceful and more charming than you" - is simple, but works extremely well in the comedy + swashbuckling action + touch o' romance formula, and, unlike many comedians, Harold sticks to his concept from start to finish.

That said, it's no surprise that Harold Lloyd's best features still rock the house in 2009.

12:27 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I can attest to how Harold Lloyd could work an audience. In the summer of 1971, I took a friend to see a film society screening of Lloyd's skyscraper comedy Never Weaken. As Harold teetered blindfolded high among the girders of a building under construction, laughs alternated with gasps and yelps of alarm. Finally my date turned to me and urgently whispered, "Jim, I can't take this anymore!" And would you believe it, within twenty seconds Lloyd was back down on solid earth, safe and sound. Even fifty years out, for audiences yet unborn, Harold Lloyd knew exactly how far he could push it, to the split-second.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Jim, and John,

Wasn't it Lloyd himself, who said in later years, that it was Irving Thalberg who credited him with having "invented" previews? I guess that's one reason why his films work so well with audiences, they're "scientifically" tested for audience reactions. (Maybe a little "too scientific" for my tastes. They have always seemed a little "too calculated" to me. But, I'm sure that's just me. Everyone else obviously loves them. I guess I just identify more with Laurel & Hardy. These two poor guys just don't stand "a chance" -- not just from the opening frame, but from the opening CREDITS! And yet, there they always are, as each episode unfolds, particularly Ollie, re-newed from the previous disaster, ever dauntless, ever optimistic, until the next, inevitable bottomless pot-hole or steam-roller, which is just waiting around seemingly every corner.)

Couple little, minor tid-bits to add to this: I was one of the "lucky ones" who saw Mr. Lloyd appear on the college circuit.(It must have been very close to his passing), one afternoon at UCLA. He came with a print of "Grandma's Boy", which I believe he named his "personal favorite", then answered questions afterward. He seemed like an extremely nice man, modest and very soft-spoken.

During my last year in high school, we had moved to a house way-up on Benedict Canyon, which belonged to Bob Hope's publicist. I'd be driving down the hill to high school in the morning, and would occasionally see a car, usually a simple station wagon, pulling-out from the Lloyd driveway, and in the backseat would be Mr. Lloyd.

As regards those late-planned 40's re-issues, John, here's an interesting piece of trivia I ran-across, which would probably never cross your path otherwise, but I think is worth sharing. In researching the lives of William Eythe and Lon McCallister for the project I'm currently at work on, Lon, who was under independent-contract to Sol Lesser, and "loaned-out" to Fox for all those movies with June Haver, was announced around the late-40's by his producer, to star in a remake of Lloyd's "Girl Shy". McCallister, who projected exactly the right balance of innocence and resourcefulness that had been Lloyd's hallmark in the twenties, would have I think been enormously effective in such a film. It, of course like so many things, never happened.


8:22 AM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for the great commentary on Lloyd. Regarding his standing in the 50s and 60s, I got a hint while looking at some Youngson compilations recently that he developed a grudge against Lloyd, perhaps for withholding material. In The Golden Age of Comedy the narrator identifies Harry Langdon as one of the "four" great geniuses of silent comedy. But by the time of When Comedy Was King, which has clips from Keaton and Chaplin as well as Langdon, there are only "three" great geniuses.

11:21 PM  
Blogger Poptique said...

I'd love to see a print or two of the Time/Life series despite prosperity's somewhat jaded view of them - 30-odd years ago I'm pretty sure they were my first exposure to Silent comedy (albeit over-dubbed with wisecracks), leaving an indelible influence on both my infantile and grown up tastes!

I can still vividly remember watching them as a child on dinner-time BBC 2 back in the early 80s, thanks mostly to the "Hooray For Harold Lloyd" theme-song forever firmly lodged in my head.

Strangely enough so do most of my friends of a similar vintage - meaning for awhile back in the late 70s and early 80s Lloyd was much more well known to my peers than either Chaplin or Keaton...

8:57 AM  
Blogger Devlin Thompson said...

I also vividly remember that "Hooray For Harold Lloyd" song. Am I right in recalling some or all of the shorts in that version having an arch and annoying narrator as part of the soundtrack?

12:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

They did have soundtracks, Devlin, and the narration was usually awful. Time/Life Lloyds were/are probably best watched with sound turned down or with alternate music accompaniment.

10:58 AM  
Blogger gmoke said...

I even like "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock" and "The Milky Way" tended to show up fairly regularly on TV a few years ago. I wonder why he never really succeeded in talkies. A very American persona, still Keaton's pathos gives him the edge for me.

10:33 PM  

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