silent film

Silent Laughter 2018: programme revealed!

silent laughter 2018 flyer

It’s here! Straight from The Cinema Museum website, this is the programme for the 2018 Silent Laughter Weekend!

SATURDAY MARCH 10TH

10.00 The Night Club (1925)
A silent feature-length comedy starring Raymond Griffith, whose surviving films are few but which delight audiences at festivals around the world (as with his Paths to Paradise (1925) and Hands Up! (1926) at previous KB screenings). Contemporary critics made such comments as `Comedy along all lines from subtle wit, through burlesque to slapstick, and in every style he gets the laughs’ and `The picture is crammed with gags, most of them new’ … and with more than a nod towards Harold Lloyd’s Why Worry? (1923), shown at our comedy weekend last year. We defy anyone to see a connection between the title and the film! Introduced by Kevin Brownlow – who perhaps will explain!

11.30 The British are Coming!
Tony Fletcher introduces a selection of 1920s British comedies, including Adrian Brunel’s glorious spoof travelogue Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924), A.A. Milne’s Bookworms (1920) starring Leslie Howard, also Variety legend Leslie Sarony singing a comic song or two in a rare DeForest Phonofilm, one of the pioneering British-made talkies that predate Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929).

13.00 LUNCH

14.00 Charley Chase
Charley ChaseMatthew Ross highlights the career of Charley Chase, a brilliant, influential and – at least until relatively recent years – overlooked comedian and director of the 1920s and 1930s. A master of both the sight gag and situational humour, this selection of prime Chase comedies will conclude with one of his funniest silent shorts.

15.35 A Perfect Gentleman (1928)
Monty Banks is perhaps best remembered today for having married (and directed) Gracie Fields, something which has unjustly eclipsed his career as a star comedian in shorts and features (his 1927 film Flying Luck opened our comedy day last November). In this, one of his best starring roles, Banks gets involved in tracking down a stolen fortune, his adventures culminating in a whirlwind, gag-filled climax at sea.

17.15 Keaton Classics
Following our 100th anniversary celebration of Buster Keaton’s film career in last November’s comedy day, we are delighted to present a programme of classic Keaton material. Noted Keaton authors David Robinson, Kevin Brownlow and David Macleod reveal their favourites and researcher Polly Rose illustrates some of her new discoveries about Buster’s 1924 feature Sherlock Jr.

18.45 Dinner

20.00 Exit Smiling (1926)
Exit SmilingRenowned stage comedienne Beatrice Lillie – a Canadian-born British star whose reputation spanned both continents – made regrettably few films. Fortunately one of these is the 1926 MGM feature Exit Smiling, produced and directed by one of Harold Lloyd’s key associates, Sam Taylor. `Bea’ Lillie – as she was often known – plays Violet, the dogsbody for a travelling theatrical troupe who harbours ambitions to act – or, as a title card informs us, has played `Nothing’ in Much Ado About Nothing! A true classic, introduced by Michelle Facey.

22.00 approx. Close

 

SUNDAY MARCH 11TH

10.00 Lame Brains and Lunatics
Lame Brains and Lunatics coverOur thanks to American author Steve Massa, who has selected some of the ‘good, the bad and the forgotten’ silent clowns from his book bearing the same title as this programme. Assisting his presentation from this side of the pond will be Dave Glass, to whom we also offer thanks. Can you afford to miss Al St.John, Toto, Marcel Perez or Paul Parrott? (Don’t answer that!)

11.35 Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)
After his early successes as a star of Pathé comedies in his native France, Max Linder made two forays into American film-making. Our recent Silent Laughter Saturday included examples from both visits, Max Wants a Divorce (1917) and Be My Wife (1921), the latter representing part of a series of features produced and directed personally by Linder. In Seven Years Bad Luck, perhaps the best of these, the fun starts when Max’s butler breaks a full-length mirror. Bad luck seemingly ensues as Max escapes the police, unwittingly hiding in a lion’s cage. In addition to Seven Years Bad Luck, the programme will include a recently discovered Max Linder short from 1910, Les Effects des Pilules. Introduced by David Robinson.

13.00 Lunch

14.00 Surprise Programme
A surprise programme of rare material hosted by award-winning editor and director Christopher Bird.

15.35 So You Won’t Talk (1935)
Monty BanksContinuing from yesterday’s screening of A Perfect Gentleman (1928), here’s a chance to see silent comedian Monty Banks in a rarely-shown British talkie – except he doesn’t talk (mostly!). In what may have been a means of translating his silent comedy methods into the talkie era, the plot sees Banks becoming weary of all the chatter surrounding him and, in order to win a bet, guaranteeing not to talk. Cue lots of silent comedy as complications ensue …

17.15 Noisy Silents
Some silent comedies have always looked as though they were intended to have soundtracks, even though none were provided at the time; these examples, including films starring Harry Langdon, Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy will be provided with the extra sound accompaniment we feel they need – in the final case, we hope, by the audience. Hosted by musician and composer Neil Brand.

18.45 Dinner

20.00 Roy Hudd
Roy HuddWe are delighted to welcome comedian, actor and writer Roy Hudd, who will be in conversation with former News Huddlines writer – and Kennington Bioscope regular – Glenn Mitchell. As with their previous shows at the Cinema Museum, Roy and Glenn will be discussing and screening clips of great comedians from film, theatre and television. This time the emphasis is expected to be on essentially visual humour … but we’ll wait and see what they come up with!

21.45 Roy Hudd talk concludes with   the newly restored Battle of the Century (1927), starring Laurel and Hardy, and the pie fight to end all pie fights!

22.00 approx. Close

 

Tickets & Pricing

Weekend Ticket £30 / One Day £18 / After 2pm £12. These are available online from Ticket Tailor.

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The Rediscovery of the Century?

A belated report on a screening of the restored ‘BATTLEOF THE CENTURY’–
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Recently, happy coincidence presented the opportunity for me to see several ‘new’ Laurel and Hardy films in a short space of time. Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend presented newly rediscovered footage from ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ as well as two L & H solo films,  and shortly after came the chance to see the newly restored, almost complete version of ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’. For so many years a frustratingly fragmented film, this has finally had its iconic pie fight reinstated at full length. Re-premiered last year, the film has, I believe, only had two previous screenings in the UK, both in London, and both of which I was crushingly unable to attend. It was with great excitement that I saw the film was being shown as part of the Leeds International Film Festival, in support of Harold Lloyd’s wonderful ‘SPEEDY’.
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The venue was The City Varieties theatre, a Victorian marvel which, like the films, has been newly restored to its former glory. It was also an appropriate venue for a silent comedy show, as both Chaplin and Keaton once trod the boards here (Chaplin as a young performer, Buster in his later years).
 Accompaniment was by Jonathan Best and Trevor Bartlett. Their accompaniment, of piano and percussion, was magnificent, one of the very best I’ve heard.
And the films? ‘SPEEDY’, my favourite Lloyd feature, was wonderful as ever, and shimmered magnificently in its new Blu Ray version. As good as it is though, ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ was inevitably the big star here. The restoration looked absolutely beautiful on the big screen, and I found myself in a childlike state of excitement and wonder as the new footage unfolded.
We’ll get to the prodigal pie fight in a minute, but first, a word on the opening scenes.
The boxing scenes looked stunning, much less dark than the previously available version. Comedically, I’ve always thought this a very  underrated sequence: some nice physical comedy, superb ‘heavy’-ing from Noah Young, and wonderful reactions from both Stan and Babe. It’s also a rare foray into topical satire, albeit loosely, for L & H. ‘The Battle of the Century’ was how the 1927 Dempsey v Tunney prize fight was billed, and it became notorious for its ‘long count’. The Chicago Tribune takes up the story:

“Amid a screaming crowd of 104,943 spectators, reporters at ringside said it took champion Gene Tunney somewhere from 12 to 15 seconds to regain his feet after being knocked down byformer champion Jack Dempsey.

It should have taken referee Dave Barry 10 seconds to count out Tunney, making Dempsey a winner by a knockout in the seventh round. But Dempsey ignored the rule that he first had to go to a neutral corner. He thereby transformed those few seconds into legend.Barry escorted Dempsey to a corner, then began a delayed count. Tunney rose before it reached 10.

In his autobiography, Dempsey conceded that he forgot all about the rule: “It’s hard to stop what you’re doing, standing over a guy and waiting for him to get up.”

Tunney, who floored Dempsey briefly in the ninth round, won the 10-round fight and retained the title.”

So, actually, the whole scene is a directly comic version of the real life event. It also struck me while watching the prizefight scenes that this is where ‘Stan’ is really born. While THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS  and PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP were both wonderful comedies with terrific performances from Laurel, he’s a bit too spirited and spritely in both  to fully represent the later Stan we know and love. Perhaps the mellowing was present in ‘HATS OFF’, too, but the surviving still photographs and cutting continuity cannot reveal whether the nuance of performance we see in ‘BATTLE’ began in the earlier film. Until that magical date when we can see ‘HATS OFF’, ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’ represents the real birth of ‘Stan’.
 With the boxing scenes over, the sense of anticipation rose in the audience. The scene which followed, with insurance man Eugene Pallette persuading Babe to take out some insurance on Stan, is still elusive. It was replaced by the same selection of bridging title cards and stills we’ve always been familiar with. But then, the last still faded, there was a brief, pregnant pause, and up in silver light shone a different corner of the Roach studios. Our two heroes walked into the frame and it was true. This was something I’d never seen before! 
 Battle Of The Century
Here they were, bringing to life images we’ve previously only known as still photographs, lost frozen images in books. Here was Babe, imperiously leading the way, and sneakily dropping a banana peel ahead of Stan; here was Stan, walking right over it in bland-faced, blissful ignorance. It was really happening. The whole scene was very well developed as a comic sequence. Feigning indecision over which direction to take, Babe repeatedly leads Stan for a walk back and forward along the same small piece of street. Each time, he gets to subtly shows his frustration with an understated “Damn!” gesture. Wonderfully funny underplaying from Mr Hardy.
Eventually, it is not Stan but a cop who slips on the peel. This begins a running gag of Babe trying to plant the rest of the banana on Stan. When he finally succeeds in doing so, the scene plays out beautifully slowly, a fine example of the L & H breakthrough in pacing. The cop looks at the banana, then at Stan. Stan looks at the banana, then back at the cop. The cop removes Stan’s hat, which Stan looks at curiously. Then, and only then, does the cop exact retribution on the Laurel cranium. Stan continues playing the scene slowly, glazing over and replacing his hat. Finally, he begins to cry. Early in the game of the L & H characters, the cry is set up wonderfully; there was not just laughter but real sympathy in the audience at Leeds!
Babe investigates the damage; a large lump has risen on Stan’s head. “I’ll get $100 dollars for that pineapple!” he crows. Stan, like Harry Langdon, seeks solace in food, but Babe snatches the banana from him before it can reach his mouth. This leads us into where the existing footage previously picked up: Pieman Charlie Hall slipping on the peel and Babe trying to plant the peel back on Stan. However, it soon becomes clear just how much Youngson edited down the footage. Practically every sequence or shot we’re used to has at least some extra material to it, in many cases full omitted gags. Careful examination of the film shows the joining points, as the ‘new’ footage is just a tiny bit less sharp.
The initial altercation with Charlie Hall, for instance, reinstates a previously unknown tit for tat sequence with ‘the little menace’. After Babe (this time unsuccessfully) again tries to plant the peel on Stan, Hall flicks his nose, messes his tie, and generally gives him a classic, finger-wagging Hall telling off before resorting to a pie! It’s easy to see why Youngson edited this down after dispensing with the previous scene: it works much better in the context of Ollie getting his come-uppance after leaving poor Stan at the mercy of the policeman.
the-battle-of-the-century-pie-fight
After this, Dorothy Coburn receives Babe’s  pie and marches over, demanding, via title “Who threw that poultice?” She returns the favour, after Stan has carefully moved Hall out of the way.
 Youngson’s footage has some judicious edits from this sequence, including the disappearance of the moment where Stan receives a pie of his own.
Also now reinstated is the reappearance of the insurance salesman, who cries out “Don’t you know it’s foolish to throw pies without insurance?”, and is roundly pelted.
Added to the recipients of pastries are a chairwoman beating a rug (“Who threw that goober?!”), and several others. We’ve already seen a man receiving a pie on his freshly shined shoes; now, the shoeshine man also gets a delivery of his own. Ditto, the photographer whose subject is a victim. In the bakery, we see a customer make the demand , via title card, “Gimme a pie!”, before his wish is fulfilled. These little details, previously lost, add a great deal to the previously known footage. Without trying to sound pretentious, the sequence now flows much more organically, as the filmmakers intended it to be seen. Laurel’s later observation that they “made every pie count” stands truer than ever and the even greater plethora of variations on the gag is increased testament to the gag writers’ talent.
Of course, one of the most justly celebrated gags in the whole thing is a cameo by Anita Garvin. Recalling that she did it as a favour to Stan on his lunchbreak, it’s a testament to her talent that she can make a quick, off the cuff shot perhaps the funniest moment in the picture. Falling on the ground, the pie landing beneath her skirt, she registers shock, disgust and embarrassment all at once in a marvellously subtle facial expression, before getting up awkwardly, and pausing to shake her leg ever so gently to dislodge some pastry.  This is where the previous version ended, but the celebrated scene now has a tag – we cut back to the boys, having seen her, laughing away, and Stan even imitating her leg waggle. At this point, the cop re-enters.
“Did you start that pie fight?” He asks.
“What pie fight?” asks Babe, his face a picture of earnest and cherubic helpfulness beneath the pastry; cut to the view of the entire city block consumed by the ritualistic pastry orgy.
Right on cue, a pie lands square in the cop’s face. The boys stifle a laugh, and attempt to saunter nonchalantly off, but turn to running as the cop gives chase. Fade to The End title, and it was all over too soon.
In an age of DVD box sets, eternally cycling YouTube playlists and instant availability of classic (and not so classic) film footage, it’s easy to take for granted how much we have.  The discovery of small chunks of important footage like this, at a time when our L and H wish list is so mercifully small, really make us pore over them and appreciate every frame. And what a wonder it is to be treated to new scenes, rather like bumping into an old, beloved friend in the street and unexpectedly embarking on a new adventure. As such, I found it really quite moving to witness ‘brand new’ footage after all these years. Of course, it’s impossible not to be left wanting more – the one remaining missing scene from BATTLE, and of course the complete HATS OFF – but even if this turns out to be the last major L & H rediscovery, it’s a fitting jewel in the crown of their catalogue.
**By the way, you can catch the new version,of “BATTLE” at the Hippodrome Film Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland next month, and due to demand there’s a repeat showing in April. It’s also planned to be part of the 2017 Silent Laughter Weekend. Watch this space for details!**

More Laurel & Hardy Revelations

This is the second in a series of posts  about Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend, where a host of rare and obscure silent comedies were shown.

hundredyears

I keep saying it, but it’s a damn good time to be a silent film fan. We’ve seen so many rediscoveries of classic comedy footage lately, some that we didn’t even know existed in the first place! For Laurel & Hardy fans, of course the big news has been the rediscovery of the complete pie fight from ‘THE BATTLE OF THE CENTURY’, but there have been other discoveries too. Last year, we saw a new, much improved version of their early short ‘DUCK SOUP’; now comes a similar upgrade for ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’, as well as two previously lost solo films.

At Silent Laughter Weekend, these were introduced by L & H experts Glenn Mitchell and David Wyatt, who provided some context for the rediscoveries. When Robert Youngson was compiling his silent comedy compilation films like ‘THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY and ‘WHEN COMEDY WAS KING’ in the late 50s, he was the first person to access many of the silent comedy films for years. He was able to access the films before they decomposed, and the excerpts he chose are in many cases the only surviving material of the films now. However, as well as taking the footage he needed, it turns out that he had a habit of sneakily making copies of whole films that he particularly liked. He kept quiet about this, presumably so he didn’t get into trouble, and the prints went undetected. Meanwhile, by the time companies like Blackhawk got around to issuing commercial prints of the films, many of the masters had gone forever. Youngson’s orphan prints, which have only just come to light, preserved these in the nick of time. This is how the ‘BATTLE’ footage came to be, and is also the provenance of ‘new’ prints of ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ and ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, found by Jon Mirsalis, while examining other films in the Gordon Berkow (ex-Youngson) collection.

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In contrast to the large chunks of ‘new’ footage in ’BATTLE…’, the new discoveries in ‘THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS’ are less revelatory. They are, however, still worth noting. Essentially, there are a few scenes which go on a bit longer, presumably because advanced decomposition later led to these segments being cut. While these can be seen as fairly minor differences, they do restore the full film to us as the filmmakers intended it to be seen, for the first time since the late 1920s. Here are the key differences I spotted while watching it through:

1) Opening scene: The UK Universal DVD set introduces Stan to us as ‘Little Goofy’, but not Babe. This version offers a tiny bit of extra footage of the pair at the outset, as well as an intro for Ollie: “Big Goofy— convicted on purely circumstantial evidence—- they caught him with both hands in the cash register”. I believe this was included in the US ‘Lost films’ version, but certainly for UK fans this is new.

2) The flooded office: We get a couple of seconds of extra footage, showing Frank Brownlee stepping into the office and falling in the water that has risen through Stan and Ollie’s tunnel.

3) The paint scene: this is the most interesting new bit of footage, as it’s a completely new, albeit short, scene of L & H. After Stan has painted Dorothy Coburn’s behind, the pair run in and out of some parked cars , and the scene fades out, ending the sequence. The Youngson version adds a tag: we fade up on the title “Four hours later—- “ and see the cop still in pursuit of the boys in the dark! Stan drops his paint can, and the cop ends up tripping over and landing in it. This is where the scene was supposed to end.

4) Finally, there’s a little extra footage of the French prison governors as they are introduced, following the scene above.

While studio publicity referred to this as the first film starring Roach’s new team, and many historians accept it as such , it never seemed quite so clear cut to the studio just what the team would be billed as. Publicity refers to “Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy”, “Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel”, and even “the new comedy trio, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and James Finlayson”! How did the original titles decide it? Revealed for the first time here, they fudge the issue by not giving team billing at all! The film is titled as ‘Hal Roach presents ‘THE SECOND 100 YEARS’’, with the cast following on the next title, like this:

With

Stan Laurel

  Oliver Hardy

    James Finlayson

      Stanley J Sandford

Perhaps the lack of a joint star billing above the title explains the reason why neither Stan nor Babe considered ‘THE SECOND 100 YEAR’ to be their ‘official’ first film, both instead giving this claim to ’PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’. As L & H fans know, ’PHILIP’ is actually far less like an official L & H film than this one; what it does have, however, is the billing ’Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy in…’ before the title. Perhaps ‘PHILIP’ represents the moment when the matter of billing crystallised, a small but significant moment in their history. Speaking of ‘PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP’, the new version from Youngson’s collection doesn’t contain any new footage, but does offer an upgrade in image quality. Hopefully both prints will be restored and available soon.

the-second-hundred-years-press-sheet

SOLO DISCOVERIES

We were also treated to the UK premieres of two L & H solo films. Both come from Italy’s Cineteca Nazionale, and accordingly have Italian titles. Translation voiceovers were ably provided for us on the day by Susan Cygan.

I wrote about the rediscovery of Stan Laurel’s solo film ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ a while ago, and particularly one two minute scene that made it to YouTube. To recap briefly, this was a spoof of Rudolph Valentino’s ‘MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE’, and the only one of Stan’s 12 films for Joe Rock not to be around in some form. However, only 7 minutes of fragments have been recovered. On viewing the full extract, it turns out that the surviving footage is not one or two scenes, but a quick tour through the whole film. We open with Stan, as Rhubarb Vaselino, “practising his favourite hobby”: doing his make up. This is a parallel scene to one in Stan’s other Valentino spoof ‘MUD AND SAND’, both mocking Valentino’s legendary vanity. Here, Stan, applies beauty spots and goes about his ritual with comically oversized accessories.

monsieur_dont_care__still1_Next, we have a brief dinner table scene where Stan enjoys some bathtub gin, and a card table scene, where Stan is playing against a count, and accuses him of cheating. This leads to him having to flee, disguising himself as a barber, a per the Valentino original. There are the brief bones of a comic barber sketch, before we cut into the flirtation scene I discussed at greater length in the last issue: Stan is attempting to escort the lady across a puddle in the street to an anachronistic yellow taxi cab. He lays down his coat, Walter Raleigh style, on top of the puddle. Stepping on it, Stan and escort disappear beneath the water; yup, it’s an early example of the famous L & H bottomless mudhole™! Here’s that scene, courtesy of the Cineteca’s YouTube account:

Following this scene, a title informs us that “ a new lady makes her entrance into society”: cue a great scene of a vampy Stan swaggering along that holds lots of promise. Alas, this is where the footage ends, so we can only wonder what happened next!

‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’ looks like it was great fun, up there with the best of the Laurel parodies. Frustratingly, the surviving footage always cuts to another scene before any gags have the chance to build, but there are some very funny moments peppered throughout.

Finally, the Universe’s laws of equilibrium have been preserved, as , to accompany the new Laurel solo discovery, there’s a new Hardy solo film too! Hooray! ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is more complete than ‘MONSIEUR DON’T CARE’; it is ,however, both much less funny and rather less interesting. The star is Jimmy Aubrey, a Karno colleague of Laurel and Chaplin, who made a string of alliteratively titled films (SQUEAKS & SQUAWKS, DAMES & DENTISTS, etc)  like this one for Vitagraph in the late teens and early 20s. While I can usually find something to enjoy in practically any comedian, I have to admit Aubrey leaves me cold in these films. He later showed, in character parts, (eg L & H’s ‘THAT’S MY WIFE’) that he could be very funny, but gets little chance to show any natural gag or pantomime ability in his own films, or at least the ones I’ve seen so far.

movpicwor471movi_0013Take this film, for example. It’s mainly crude knockabout set in a department store, based rather obviously on Chaplin’s ‘THE FLOORWALKER’, right down to a central staircase prop. Here, it’s a precursor of the collapsing staircase Keaton used in 1921’s ‘THE HAUNTED HOUSE’. Did Buster get the idea from here? Whatever, it’s a perfect example of why Keaton was head and shoulders above performers like Aubrey; in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’, there’s no reason for the prop to be there, and the only gags that happen are people falling down it. Keaton, on the other hand, furnishes a reason for the staircase, and adds in a host of different variations on its use, that almost make it a character in itself.

The best scene in ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is actually outside the department store, as Babe chases Jimmy. Jimmy hides amongst some dummies and Babe searches for him, slowly becoming more and more suspicious. It’s a fun little moment of quiet between the slapstick madness, and significant that Aubrey is funniest when doing pretty much nothing, and leaving the reacting to Babe. The (unintentionally) most amusing moment of all though, is surely when the heroine writes a note describing Aubrey as “cuddly and charming”! What had she been drinking? I can’t think of any two less suitable adjectives!

Hardy almost certainly wouldn’t have used this description, as Aubrey had him fired from the series shortly after for upstaging him. It’s easy to see why, based on the evidence of ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’. Even behind his huge prop moustache and eyebrows, the touches of humour Babe added to his traditional ‘heavy’ roles really shine through in a film with few genuinely amusing gags, and show how sophisticated his acting style was compared to most of the other performers in the film. Speaking of other performers, there’ s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him scene of Monty Banks, and director Dick Smith (Alice Howell’s husband) also has a small role. It might not be a classic, but ‘MAIDS & MUSLIN’ is an interesting film to see, and helps paint a fuller picture of Hardy’s solo career.

These two films have been rescued and restored in 4k by the Cineteca Nazionale. Many thanks to them, both for their efforts in doing so, and for allowing the films to be shown as part of Silent Laughter Weekend.

Harold Lloyd: in praise of ‘SPEEDY’

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Harold Lloyd’s ‘SPEEDY’ is not an obscure or rare film, but one that manages to be consistently overlooked. It was Lloyd’s last silent film. As Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift, he’s a baseball fanatic who can’t keep his mind on his work long enough to stay in a job for more than a day at a time. Eventually, he gets work driving his girl’s grandfather’s horse-drawn tramcar, just as the big railroad company tries to force it out of business. The tram must run once a day to keep its franchise, and Speedy is charged with keeping the service running, despite all the big company’s attempts at sabotage. He manages to overcome all the obstacles to save the day, allowing Grandpappy to sell the line at a profit.  Alongside all his other classic silent features, it’s often overlooked. Alright; it probably isn’t his best film – there’s nothing as iconic as the building climb in ‘SAFETY LAST’ here, and the story isn’t as evenly sustained as in ‘THE KID BROTHER’, but personally, it’s my favourite of all Lloyd’s films.

So, what sets it apart for me? Well, first of all, SPEEDY has a rather different quality to many of his other films. Most of the other Lloyd features fall into two groups; the first, including ‘THE KID BROTHER’, ‘DR JACK’ and ‘GIRL SHY’ are based in small, rural towns. The other, more Metropolitan films, are comedies of jazz age city speed and thrills, like ‘SAFETY LAST’ or ‘FOR HEAVENS’ SAKE’. These all take place in the metropolis of Los Angeles, although it is never explicitly stated. ‘SPEEDY’ on the other hand, has a definite geographic setting, on the opposite coast. It specifically takes place in New York, with landmarks like the Yankee Stadium and Coney Island integral to the film’s plot. It even features real life baseball star Babe Ruth as himself. Neither before nor since in Lloyd’s career was the fantasy quite so inextricably linked with reality.

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Most unusually for Lloyd, his character has already won the girl before the film starts; he’s confident and self-assured, and so we get a change from the usual ‘weakling has to impress girl by making a man of himself’ plot. While Harold still gets to save the tramcar and succeed in making a fortune, the plot is a bet less contrived than in some of the others. In fact, his relationship with Ann Christy is probably the most realistic and genuine of any of his films, having a real, winsome charm to it.   Their scenes at Coney Island are one of the highpoints of the film, and there is a lovely little scene where they catch a lift back to town in a furniture van, setting up home and dreaming of the future during the ride back.

This charming quality applies to the film as a whole; the outdated streetcar is matched by the now-vanished Coney Island funfair scenes, always a highlight. From here, through backstreets of New York, to hot dogs, yellow taxi cabs and baseball, Lloyd celebrates icons of Americana. None of his other films reflect the title of his autobiography, “AN AMERICAN COMEDY”, quite so well. With the passing of time, this has taken on an even greater nostalgic quality. Indeed, the whole film is permeated by an atmosphere of celebrating the old ways as the modern world changes everything. Is it just a coincidence that this is the film that Lloyd was making as Sound technology threatened to change the movie industry and the careers of the silent comedians beyond all recognition? (As a footnote, It’s interesting that Keaton’s last independent silent, ‘STEAMBOAT BILL JR’, also celebrates an obsolete form of technology).

Truthfully, ‘SPEEDY’ is somewhat haphazardly constructed, but there are lots of high spots, with Harold’s continued failed attempts to hold down a job provide for plenty of good gag sequences. The best is probably his short-lived career as a taxi driver, which even includes a cameo by Babe Ruth! To top it all off, there’s a classic Lloyd chase through the streets of New York, as he races to the finish line, driving the streetcar like a chariot. Lloyd later recalled how an accident when he crashed the streetcar was worked into the film, a brilliant example of the fluidity and spontaneity of silent technique, soon to be lost with the crushing rigidity of the talkies.

SPEEDY is a real charmer, and a fine way to draw the curtain on the silent era. Lloyd’s next film, the talkie ‘WELCOME DANGER’ is best forgotten. I prefer to leave him at the high point of SPEEDY, racing his streetcar to the finish line.

Here are a couple of my favourite scenes. First, Harold’s trip on the subway…

… and two icons of Americana together: Harold meets Babe Ruth…