Harold’s silent swan song

My favouritest of Harold Lloyd’s silent features, Speedy, was released 7 April 1928. It was Harold’s final silent, and is such a beautiful, poignant farewell to this era of his career. Harold alternated gag comedies with character comedies, and this is a gag comedy.

New York City is a city of speed, progress, fast-paced lives, but not so for Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), who drives the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar. He lives with his granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy), who’s going steady with Harold “Speedy” Swift.

Railroad officials have been pestering Pop to sell them his streetcar, but he refuses to take their offer. Either he sells on his terms, for his price, or not at all.

We now learn Speedy has a new job, the latest in a long line of short-lived jobs. Each time, he insists this job will be successful. His jobs all have one thing in common—being within phoning distance of Yankee Stadium.

Speedy’s latest job is as a soda jerk, and he constantly phones for the latest score. Speedy has a very clever way of communicating this to his co-workers, who love the Yankees just as much as he does. Harold always had such ingenious gags, perhaps partly a result of having to learn how to navigate life with only eight fingers. He had to figure out ways to do things other people might never consider.

Speedy knows he’s out of this job too when there’s a mishap with flowers he’s supposed to deliver to the boss’s wife. Pop and Jane are rather upset, but he assures them he’ll quickly find a replacement job, just as he always does. Speedy also promises Jane they’ll go to Coney Island.

The vice-president of the railroad company comes to ask for Pop’s rock-bottom price. While he’s writing the figure, Speedy sees a newspaper story announcing a planned merger of streetcars, which can’t succeed unless small franchises are bought up. Speedy conveniently arranges for the card with Pop’s price to fall on the floor, and Speedy changes it from $10,000 to $70,000.

Harold writes with his left hand in this scene. Though he was able to write with his three-fingered right hand, it makes me happiest to see Harold doing things left-handed. That must’ve been a huge shot of pride for the lefties in the audience, in an era when a great majority of them were bullied and shamed out of their natural inclination.

Speedy and Jane then go to Coney Island. I absolutely love the footage of real Coney Island rides, all of which now exist only in memory. These people were so lucky to be able to go there and experience all these wonderful attractions, food stands, games, prizes, kiosks, and rides, and to have such cheap subway fare.

Before a curved mirror, Speedy gives himself the finger, possibly the first known instance of this on film.

After a day full of fun, and many misunderstandings with other amusement park-goers, Speedy and Jane head home with almost too much to carry, and a dog who wouldn’t leave them alone. They ride home in the back of a furniture truck, and play at it being their own home.

Speedy proposes, and Jane says she won’t think of it until Pop’s affairs are settled. Speedy promises to get a job in the morning, and to help Pop.

That next job is as a cabbie, which of course quickly descends into disaster and comedic misunderstandings. One of the gags involves a suitcase leaking a trail of liquid in front of a cop, which 1928 audiences understood meant he was violating Prohibition.

In this era, it was only 15 cents for the first quarter-mile, and five cents per each additional quarter-mile.

Speedy eventually gets the passenger of a lifetime—Babe Ruth. During the drive to Yankee Stadium, Speedy barely watches the road, so overcome with star fever. Babe barely arrives in one piece, but nevertheless invites Speedy to watch the game.

Who should be right in front of Speedy at the game but his boss! Also at the game is the cop who wrote him two tickets.

While hiding in a phonebooth, Speedy overhears the railroad bosses hatching a plan to drive Pop out of business. If the car doesn’t run at least once every 24 hours, he’ll have to give it up. Towards this end, they plan to start a fight to distract him, and steal the car during it.

At home, Speedy notices Pop is sick, and asks if he can drive the car for the next few days. Pop agrees.

Now it’s up to Speedy to figure out a way to save the day.

A beautiful Bildungsroman on film

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Released 22 January 1927, The Kid Brother was the great Harold Lloyd’s penultimate silent, and possibly my favorite of his films after only his silent swan song Speedy (1928). It’s got heart, soul, warmth, emotion, comedic timing, character development, story development, ingenious gags, everything. It’s also a beautiful film equivalent of a Bildungsroman, a growing-up story.

It’s based on the excellent Tol’able David (1921), starring the handsome Richard Barthelmess, and also a remake of Hal Roach’s The White Sheep (1924), starring the rather forgettable Glenn Tryon.

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Harold’s father, Sheriff Jim Hickory, and his two big brothers Leo and Olin have made their name famous throughout the county, but they’ve always figured Harold of no accord. Though he was 33 at the time of filming, he has a suitably boyish look that makes him believable as a kid brother. He’s also not nearly as tall and strapping as the other three.

The Hickorys’ longtime enemies are the Hoopers. Son Hank in particular has hated Harold since Harold sold him a dozen doorknobs as eggs in the dark. Harold uses this feud to his advantage when there’s a mishap with the laundry line.

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While Harold is alternately running away from Hank and retrieving laundry, he meets Mary Powers. Mary’s dad recently died, leaving her with a travelling medicine show. She’s not happy about having to continue the business, but the show must go on.

Mary believes Harold is one of the important Hickorys, and he doesn’t enlighten her. He likes feeling important, since he’s not treated like anyone special at home.

Mary is played by Jobyna Ralston, Harold’s leading lady since 1923. She always brings out the best in him. Bittersweetly, this was their final film together.

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Harold and Mary make a date to go to the opening of a new dam, and when Harold gets home, his father and brothers begin discussing this dam. They leave Harold out of their discussion, but they let him sign the document.

Harold tries to go to their meeting about the dam, but he’s left at home, since that meeting’s no place for boys.

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With the house to himself, he dresses up in his father’s sheriff outfit, and when he steps outside, he’s mistaken for the real sheriff by the medicine show quacks. He’s compelled into signing a document permitting the show to appear in town.

Interestingly, Harold writes right-handed both of the times he writes in this film. Though he lost the first two fingers on his right hand in 1919 and had to learn left-handedness, he also was able to write right-handed. Now that’s talent, not only learning a different handedness, but also learning how to write with a hand that only has three fingers!

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Harold’s dad is quite upset to learn the medicine show is playing, and that Harold impersonated him. Instead of punishing Harold outright, his dad sends him down to break it up, “[s]eeing as you seem to be taking over the duties as sheriff.”

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Things go from bad to worse, as Harold is made into the show’s entertainment and eventually handcuffed to a swinging bar. His dad and brothers come by as he’s trying to free himself, and Harold ends up setting the whole show on fire. In the mêlée that follows, he gets locked into a wicker hamper.

Mary eventually frees him, and since there’s a rainstorm, Harold takes her to his house for shelter. Her new guardians later show up to take her home, seeing as it’s not decent for her to stay in a house without womenfolk.

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As Harold and Mary are on their way to the dam celebration next morning, they discover the money to build the dam has been stolen. Harold’s father is accused, and rightly comes to the conclusion it must’ve been the medicine show goons. Detained as a suspect, he sends his older sons to search. Mary is also held as a suspect.

Harold is tossed into a rowboat and pushed out to sea when he tries to defend Mary. He winds up by a boat called The Black Ghost, and the medicine show monkey tosses down incriminating evidence. Now it’s up to Harold to get on that boat, find the money, bring the villains to justice, and clear his father’s name. If he can do so, he’ll finally prove his worth as a real Hickory.

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“Just one more floor!”

(Given the date of this post coinciding with Shabbos, I’ve obviously pre-scheduled it. I never post in real time on Shabbos.)

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Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid are hosting the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” blogathon from 5–7 December, wherein participants post about potential gateway films to entice someone unfamiliar with classics. By the parameters of this blogfest, classic means anything made in or before 1965.

One of these gateway films is Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923)

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Harold Lloyd (20 April 1893–8 March 1971) was the third genius of the silent cinema, but, until relatively recently, his films weren’t widely available. Baruch Hashem (Thank God), all his major films are now on DVD. We’re so lucky so many survived, when silents have such an abysmal survival rate. Sadly, most of his earlier Lonesome Luke shorts were lost in a 1943 fire, but the percent of his surviving films is still excellent.

On a personal level, Harold is not only one of my favorite comedians, but also one of my inspirations. Most silent fans know the story of how he almost died when a prop bomb went off in his hand, near his face, but the story of his recovery and determination to get even better at his craft especially means a lot to me because I’m also a burn survivor. Because of that near-fatal accident, Harold had to learn a new handedness, and it makes me so happy to see him doing things left-handed. Whether you’re a lefty by birth or accident, you’re part of my family.

On to the actual film review!

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The film opens with an awesome sight gag which I won’t spoil the details of. Harold opened several of his films with such sight gags, giving the impression of something much different from what we expected. During this first scene, he heads off to the big city to make good, and his girlfriend Mildred (his real-life future wife, Mildred Davis) promises to join him when he’s made a name.

In the big city, Harold rooms with Limpy Bill (Bill Strother), who recently broke his left leg in real life. They live hand to mouth and have trouble paying rent on time, though Harold paints a much different picture of his finances in his letters to Mildred and buys her gifts far beyond his means.

The only real dated scene is the Jewish pawnbroker shop. I know this was a stock stereotype and not intended to be offensive, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable. (They’re also working on Shabbos!) Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t become much better at creating accurate, well-rounded Jewish characters and storylines over all these decades, but that’s the subject for another post!

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Harold always comes to work super-early, but one morning, he gets stuck in a towel truck by the employees’ entrance and thus is completely rerouted. He faces obstacles including an overflowing streetcar and a would-be chauffeur who gets a parking ticket. The way Harold finally gets to work and cheats the time clock is so ingenious, but again, I won’t spoil anything.

We discover he’s a fabric salesman in the DeVore Department Store, on the ground floor of a 12-story building. We also discover, via a pay stub and misconduct ticket, that his character’s full name is one and the same as his. He always played a Harold, but he used another surname in all his other films.

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During the work scenes, Harold writes and uses scissors with his left hand several times. This makes me so happy and excited, and I can only imagine how proud the lefties in the audience were. This was a time when many lefties were shamed, bullied, and forcibly switched from their natural inclination, yet here was a huge star using his left hand for all to see.

After work ends, Harold runs into his old buddy Jim, who’s also moved to the big city and become a cop. They horse around a bit, and then Harold tells Bill he’s got such pull with the cops he can get away with anything. Unfortunately, the cop they play their prank on turns out to be a different cop (Noah Young), and Bill is the one caught and blamed. To escape, Bill scales the wall of a nearby building. This sets the stage for the film’s famous dramatic climax.

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Mildred’s mother suggests she join Harold in the big city, and Mildred’s unexpected arrival forces Harold into the charade of having a much more important position. He’s eventually roped into impersonating the general manager, and while he’s thinking up a ruse to get back into the office to retrieve Mildred’s purse, he overhears the general manager saying he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can attract a huge crowd.

Harold suggests a mystery man climb the building, which was a huge crowd draw in the Twenties. People loved watching daredevil stunts like flagpole sitting, building climbing, and aerial shows. Unfortunately, the cop is on the prowl at the same time Bill is set to climb the building, and thanks to a drunk (Earl Mohan) showing him the newspaper story, the cop immediately realizes this faceless mystery man is one and the same as the guy who pushed him. Keep in mind, this is pre-Miranda Rights!

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Bill compels Harold into starting to climb in his place, and at the second story, Bill will put on his coat and hat so people will believe Harold’s still the one climbing. However, the cop is hot on Bill’s heels, and Harold is compelled into climbing just one more floor every time. Along the way, he encounters near-disasters including pigeons, hot coffee, a plank, a flagpole, a tennis net, a rope, and, of course, that famous clock.

Over 90 years later, this is still a thrilling sequence. There were several different façades to make it look like the same building getting higher and higher, but he was never that far off the ground. Footage of Bill is used in the long shots. However, had Harold fallen to the right instead of straight down, he would’ve fallen to his death.

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Besides the awesome thrill sequence, and overlooking the dated but essentially harmless stereotype of the Jewish pawnbroker, this is just such a perfect, fun, charming film, on all possible levels. This was all done without CGI, including some rather advanced special effects like Harold using a bald head as a mirror and watching each item of a businessman’s lunch gradually disappearing as he buys a half-off lavaliere for Mildred. Knowing they were a couple in real life makes their scenes together even sweeter.

Harold’s films have been called less timeless than Keaton and Chaplin’s, since they’re such time capsules of the Twenties. However, that’s a reason why I love them. It’s fun to see life as it was, like department stores with soda fountains, old-fashioned streetcars, Brass Age cars, vintage coins, the price of living, and steam locomotives.

Celebrating The Freshman at 90

If you’re observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

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This handsome, talented gentleman is Harold Lloyd (20 April 1893–8 March 1971), the third great comedian of the silent era. Besides being a brilliant actor and comedian, he also seemed like a really nice, genuine person, and managed his money very well. On a personal level, other reasons I’m such a big fan are because he was a fellow lefty and burn survivor. I’ve also always loved the name Harold.

Harold wasn’t, to anyone’s knowledge, born left-handed, but after a near-fatal accident in August 1919, his right thumb and forefinger had to be amputated, and he had to learn another handedness. It really makes me happy when I see him doing something left-handed in his films, knowing what social and cultural attitudes towards left-handedness were at that time.

Even if you’ve never seen one of Harold’s films or don’t know his name, you’ve probably seen this most iconic image of him:

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I actually gasped out loud many times when I first watched Safety Last! (1923), even knowing he wasn’t going to fall to his death while climbing that building over city traffic. Though he did use a double for some long shots, Harold, like Buster Keaton, did all his stunts himself. It’s even more amazing to think about how he did that with only three fingers on his right hand. He wore a prosthetic glove onscreen, but that doesn’t change the real state of his hand.

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The Freshman, released 20 September 1925, was Harold’s most successful film of the silent era, and created a trend for college-themed films. College life was already very fashionable, something to aspire to, but this film just made it even hotter.

Harold Lamb is on his way to Tate University when he meets Peggy (Jobyna Ralston, Harold’s leading lady from 1923–28) on the train. Naturally, they fall in instalove.

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Harold feels the best way into popularity will be to copy The College Hero, a movie idol of his. This copycatting includes doing a funny jig when meeting someone, and taking the nickname Speedy. Since Harold is such a nice, innocent guy, he doesn’t realize people are making fun of him and his mannerisms. He’s even deceived into believing he’s popular, when in reality everyone is laughing at him behind his trusting back. Peggy, however, is a good egg, and proves to be Harold’s only real friend.

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Harold fails when he tries out for the football team, and is used as the practice tackle dummy because he damaged the real one. In spite of being tackled over and over, Harold’s desire to play football is undeterred. The coach is impressed by his enthusiasm, but still doesn’t want him on the team. Another cruel trick is played on Harold when Chet Trask, the team’s captain and hero, suggests the coach use him as a water boy while letting him think he’s a real part of the team.

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Harold is compelled into hosting the Fall Frolic dance, but there’s a slight problem—his tailor hasn’t finished his suit yet. Ever the optimist, Harold puts on a suit barely held together with basting stitches. All through the party, the tailor tries his best to keep the suit together, but his clothes eventually give way. Harold then sees the College Cad not behaving so appropriately with Peggy, and knocks him down.

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The Cad is furious, and finally informs Harold just what everyone thinks of him. Peggy meanwhile tells Harold to just be himself, and stop pretending to be someone he’s not. Still undeterred, Harold determines to make himself a hero through the next big football game.

The opposing team is so brutal, many of Tate’s players are taken out due to injuries and the substitutes run out. With little choice, the coach finally lets Harold play, and the underdog emerges as a hero.

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Hair-Raising Movies and 1985

My Haunted Writing Clinic post is here.

Today is the second week of the Express Yourself Meme, as well as the second week of the October Memoir and Backstory Blog Challenge. This week’s topic for the former bloghop is:

List 5 movies/books that causes the hair to stand up on your neck.

1.  Cocoon (1985). That is one of the movies I refuse to ever watch again, and if I should flit by it while channel-surfing, I won’t stick around. I’m still not sure why my parents thought it was cool to take a kid my age to see that in the theatre. One of the scariest movie moments of my life was when that woman steps out of her skin by the pool and reveals herself to be an alien.

Some years later, when I was 12, I was watching TV with the teen babysitter at my dad’s then-boss’s annual holiday party while the adults were out at a restaurant or something. The boss’s kids were probably asleep, so we went downstairs to entertain ourselves while the grownups were gone. That movie just had to come on, and I had to pretend not to be completely freaked out all over again as the babysitter was gushing about how neat it was that that woman stepped out of her skin!

2.  Just about anything with Lon Chaney, Sr., one of my favoritest male actors and perhaps the greatest male star of the silent era. He was the master of horror and the macabre, and at the same time brought such a human dimension to the villains and underdogs he played. It’s such a tragedy how he died just weeks after his first and only sound film was released. (He had a fantastic voice!) He’d been slated to play Dracula, and probably would’ve been in Frankenstein and Freaks as well.

Just a sampling of Lon’s hair-raising films: The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Unknown (1927, and co-starring a young Joan Crawford), The Penalty (1920), He Who Gets Slapped (1924).

3.  Though it’s not a horror film at all, Harold Lloyd’s best-known film, Safety Last! (1923), makes my hair stand on end. The first time I watched the famous building-climbing scene, I gasped several times. Even if you’re not familiar with the third great silent comedy genius, you’ve probably seen the picture of a bespectacled man hanging from the hands of a large clock over traffic. I obviously knew what the outcome would be, but I got so caught up in the story that I wondered if he’d make it.

It’s even more hair-raising knowing he was missing two fingers. Following a near-fatal accident in 1919, Harold had to have two fingers on his right hand amputated, and wore a prosthetic glove onscreen for the rest of his career. Harold is one of my favorite famous lefties, even though he (probably) wasn’t born that way.

4.  There’s one particularly hair-raising scene in The Conquering Power (1921), one of my favorite Rudy Valentino films. The bad guy, Père Grandet, gets locked in his precious gold vault, and he begins having horrific hallucinations which include a creepy golden figure advancing towards him and declaring: “All your life you have sought me. Now you are mine!”

5.  The dramatic, creepy penultimate scene of the 1932 classic Freaks is one of the all-time most hair-raising film moments, as all the “freaks” crawl through the mud during a night thunderstorm on their way to exact revenge on two of the few non-freaks in the film.


I started kindergarten in 1985. Due to some childhood issues I’d prefer not to publicly elaborate on, here are some 1985 songs from my vinyl collection:

Under a Raging Moon is one of Roger’s best solo albums. If you’re interested in exploring his solo career, this is one of the quintessential albums to get.

Because Pete is Pete, White City is billed as a novel. It’s definitely one of his top studio solo albums. It’s the story of Jimmy from Quadrophenia, all grown up.

Why did I not know about this beautiful album till last year? And yes, this is where I got the new name for the protagonist of my hiatused sci-fi Bildungsroman. Nothing wrong with the name Casey, but I like MC names that are more than just “there.” Arcadia is so much more memorable!