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Mediocrity = Success?

August 5, 2009

Of the early stars in the Silent Film Era, only few have emerged with long lasting success and recognition. Laurel and Hardy and Fatty Arbuckle are among the few. However three are considered in the trinity of silent film stars from the late 1910s until the end of the silent era in 1927; Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and lesser spoke of yet out-grossing star in his time Harold Lloyd. TCM decided to pay homage to this underrated star today during their Summer Under the Stars marathon this month. After seeing a few clips and short documentaries on Lloyd, I decided to get a feel of who he was as a comedian by watching his most memorable film 1923’s Safety Last! The film shows why Lloyd is sadly a forgotten comedian from the Silent Era. While Lloyd gets credit for creating his own memorable character to battle Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s memorable face and look, Lloyd’s character “Glasses” is the least impressive comedy wise.

Safety Last! tells the story of The Boy (Harold Lloyd) who leaves his fiancé, mother, and home to go to the city to find work. He promises his fiancé The Girl (Mildred Davis) that he will make enough money for the two to get a home and support a family. Once in the city he works at a department store with his snobby and spiteful manager Mr. Stubbs and lives with his friend Bill, The Pal (Bill Strother). With only a lavender pendant, The Boy decides that once he makes enough money he will buy a chain and send the necklace to The Girl. Foolishly he ignores his starving body and blows his first and only paycheck on the necklace. Why didn’t he just wait until next week’s paycheck to get the chain? I don’t know. He sends the necklace and a letter to The Girl leading her to strangely believe that he has enough money to buy a house and start the family he promised. With coaxing from The Boy’s mom, The Girl decides to visit him, somehow making her way to his job in a city that she has never been before.

Although obviously lower-middle class, The Girl is embarrassed with the thought of The Boy working as a clerk leading him to pretend to be the manager, an attempt that Chaplin would have probably pulled off with quick fluid movements smoothly switching between being The Tramp and The Boss. However Lloyd’s approach comes off more stout and stale as the comedy comes more from the words than image…strange for a silent film. Through intertitles (the black cards of dialogue) The Boy, acting as manager, scolds a co-worker for not properly conducting a sale to The Girl’s relief. And that’s it… no physical humor, no major change of bodily or facial structure, only the intertitles to deliver the joke. Now in silent film that just don’t cut it. Keaton known for his dead pan face still knew how to use his body as a comedic tool while Chaplin incorporated both. Lloyd however didn’t use enough of either. His expressions are very average and predictable. It’s as if you can hear the director shouting through the megaphone “now you’re the boss, that’s right look tough” or “ok now you’re scared, look scared.”

More of Lloyd’s bland comedy comes when he bumps into an old acquaintance on the street who just so happens to be a cop, The Law (very intriguing character names). They reminisce, laugh together, shake hands, and depart ways. The Boy tells The Pal that he can do whatever he wants in that city because he knows a cop… why would he think that? Again I don’t know. So The Boy concocts the genius plan to have The Pal push over the cop while The Boy bends down behind him. However while they are talking another cop walks onto screen as the earlier cop leaves. Well only one possible outcome can and does come from this. Have you guessed it yet? Probably. The plan goes on but– on no it’s a different cop being pushed! Sadly the entire film is filled with predictable cheap jokes like that.

But not all is lost for Safety Last! Lloyd’s best aspect that sets him apart from his contemporaries was his action skills. Keaton was known for his stunt work as well but I have yet to see Keaton do the death defying stunts that Lloyd did (or maybe was assisted with a stuntman) in this film. The most famous part and arguably the most iconic image from the Silent Era, involves The Boy climbing a 12-story building in order to gain $1000 by creating publicity for his store, an offer he overheard his manager make. He climbs each level only to be met with more dry cheap humor until he makes it to the clock on the façade of the building. He holds on for dear life only to have the clock break as he dangles from the face of the building by the clock’s hands. All the while the scene is shot overhead and slightly angled down to remind the audience that he is dangling over real traffic, way before the age of CGI and special effects.

After being utterly disappointed with Safety Last! as a whole, I decided to try one more Lloyd film. His 1924 film Girl Shy which exemplified more of Lloyd’s inferior humor. In it he plays The Poor Boy, an average tailor with a stuttering problem who loses all his wit and poise at the sight of women. Despite this affliction he writes The Secret of Lovemaking, a book that details how to woo various women from the ‘Vampire’ or Vamp to the Flapper. The wooing scenes taking place in The Boy’s head (fast forward to to 3:57 for spousal abuse humor).

Girl Shy’s un-funniness unfolds from the beginning as a woman runs into his store and professes that she has a tiny hole in her stocking that needs to be sewn– even the innuendo is terrible. The Poor Boy walks nervously past her in order to get a needle while avoiding eye contact. He retrieves the needle and hands it quickly to her before rushing back to his work space. She continuously attempts to seduce him however coming off bubbly and forced instead of sly and sexy, by asking him to do the sewing. It takes him three tries and three pricks in the leg from nervousness before he finally sews the hole. The entire scene didn’t make me laugh, chuckle, or smile once instead I questioned who on earth would find that or any other sequence in the film even remotely funny.

My initial reaction and review was intended to be a somewhat positive one after watching Safety Last! however the more I watch from Lloyd’s collection the more I really dislike his brand of humor. It is a known fact that Lloyd out-grossed Keaton and Chaplin at the box office however it was due to Lloyd doing more films than the two comedians, a ratio of 12 to 3 for Chaplin. Nevertheless Lloyd’s work confuses me. I just don’t understand his appeal and how he was considered a top billing star in the 1920s. Film was still relatively young in Lloyd’s time but comedy wasn’t and I’m pretty positive that even in 1924 Lloyd’s brand of humor was very common, that’s why Keaton and Chaplin were and still are popular because they were doing something different. There’s nothing new or innovative about Lloyd, each scene and plot turn is a cheap obvious motivation for a gag that doesn’t shock, impress, or even promote laughter.

If all three comedians were holding a pie, Chaplin would wind up hitting everyone in the room and probably himself included, Keaton would throw it, hit the wrong person, and then take off running, Lloyd would throw it at someone who moves and it would ultimately hit a stranger walking into the scene– a typical common and bland motif.

Safety Last! = SEE IT… But only because it’s kind of culturally significant.
Girl Shy = AVOID IT.

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