Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Review: Speedy

"Speedy"  *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Lately I have spent a lot of time revisiting the comedy world of silent screen icon Harold Lloyd. I have re-watched several Lloyd comedies including "The Freshman" (1925), "Girl Shy" (1924), "Hot Water" (1924), "The Kid Brother" (1927) and "Why Worry?" (1923).

The reason for the renewal interest in the work of Harold Lloyd is because I feel I have neglected discussing the films this comedy legend appeared in. I have reviewed nearly all the feature length films by Chaplin; "Modern Times" (1936), "The Kid" (1921), "City Lights" (1932) and "The Great Dictator" (1940) among them. I have reviewed all of the available silent feature length films starring the forgotten comedy clown, Harry Langdon. That leaves us with Buster Keaton and Harold  Lloyd. Of the Keaton comedies I have only reviewed "Sherlock, Jr." (1924). Of the Harold Lloyd comedies I have reviewed "Safety Last" (1923) and "Movie Crazy" (1932). But, I needed to review more.

Now the question becomes, what to review? So, I started re-watching the Harold Lloyd comedies I own, which is all of his feature length comedies. I remember the last time I saw them, for some it was as long as 10 years ago, I really enjoyed them. Lloyd was a childhood favorite of mine. Often referred to as "the third genius" I took pity on him. I didn't think it was fair he should be referred to as the third best silent comedian behind Chaplin and Keaton. Since I was always someone that championed the underdog I figured someone should say Harold  Lloyd is their favorite silent comedian, so, I decided that person will be me.

The first time I saw comedies such as "The Freshman", perhaps his most famous comedy, AFI named it one of the 100 best films of all time in their original list, and "Girl Shy" and "Grandma's Boy" (1922) I was just blown away. What a truly brilliant, innovative comedian he was. Each film thrilled me through and through and inspired me, as an amateur filmmaker himself.

But, a funny thing happened as I began re-watching these Lloyd comedies. They didn't excite me the way they once did. Oh, sure, there were funny sequences, I would never suggest a Harold Lloyd comedy is dull and/or boring, but, I wasn't an active participant in the movie. There was something about the Lloyd character, commonly referred to as "glasses", that I wasn't responding to. It took a while for me to figure out what it was as I watched movie after movie. Then it hit me.

Harold Lloyd didn't make the kind of silent comedies Chaplin or Keaton did. Harold Lloyd was essentially a leading man in disguise and his pictures were more so romantic comedies than anything else. Watch "Girl Shy" and tell me that's not the case. It has a formula very similar to romantic comedies made today.

The other thing I began to notice was Lloyd often was a victim of the plot. He wasn't an active character. Bad things happened to him and he responded to the situation but he wasn't a performer the way Chaplin was. Lloyd didn't do funny things in his pictures, funny things happened to him. For some reason that lessened my enjoyment and I didn't feel like writing about any of the movies I was watching. In a last ditch effort I watched "Speedy" (1928), a comedy I remembered as being a minor, funny, effort. For me, it held up better than any of the comedies I re-watched and my opinion of it improved.

The major difference this time around is the romance isn't given as much screen time. I like this because it gives us more time for comedy instead. Also, as is the case with most silent comedies, the plot isn't sidetracked by a comedy routine that comes out of nowhere and takes up 15 minutes. "Speedy" is a pretty well structured story that narrows its focus and sticks to the outline of the plot. It is consistent.

In "Speedy" Lloyd plays Harold "Speedy" Swift. Reminiscent of the characters Lloyd usually played "Speedy" is a young all-American boy who loves baseball (what's more American than that?), especially the New York Yankees and their ace outfielder, Babe Ruth, and yes, "the bambino" makes an appearance in the picture (!).

The problem with "Speedy" however is he can't hold a job. He is too preoccupied with baseball and keeping up with the latest scores to focus on his work. There are more important things in life than a job after all. But this lack of financial security is a problem for the girl he loves, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy). She lives with her grandfather (Bert Woodruff) who runs the last horse drawn streetcar in New York. Major streetcar companies want to merge together and buy out small independent owned streetcars. But "Pops" is holding out to sell his, especially after "Speedy" tells him of the planned merger. It would be in "Pops" benefit to hold out and ask for more money.

Meanwhile, "Speedy" needs to find a job and keep it, so he can follow the American dream and marry the woman he loves so they may start a family together.

Getting in the way of that simply dream of "Speedy"'s however is "Pops". Jane won't marry Speedy until her grandfather's financial affairs are in order. "Speedy" over hears the head of a streetcar company devise a plan that will stop "Pops" from being able to run his horse drawn streetcar. A fight will be planned to happen on the streetcar and the thugs will steal it. Under the law, as long as the streetcar operates once every 24 hours the horse drawn streetcar belongs to "Pops" and no one can take it away from.

Discovering the plan "Speedy" offers to run the streetcar for a couple of days and rounds up a bunch of elderly business owners in the neighborhood to help him fight off the thugs and save the horse drawn streetcar.

What I enjoy most about watching "Speedy" is we get to see Coney Island. There is a date sequence as Speedy and Jane go on a Sunday date. We see them go on all the rides and eat hot dogs and a lot of other food. It adds a historical purpose, the viewer actually gets to see footage of what Coney Island in the 1920s looked like and it is fun to see. I liked the sequence of sentimental reasons. I love the era of the 1920s and what seemed to be such a simple lifestyle. Even the working class could go out and have a night on the town. Of course by the end of the night Speedy is completely broke.

We also get to see footage of Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth hit a home run. Ruth plays a passenger in Speedy'a cab, in another job that Speedy can't hold as a cabdriver this time. We see Speedy zig-zag through the streets of New York narrowly missing cars left and and right because he is too busy with his head turned to Ruth expressing his admiration.

A funny sequence occurs at the beginning of the movie as Speedy works as a soda jerk. He keeps calling a friend who tells him the score of the Yankee's game while Speedy tells the other employees the score. But, because he is at work and doesn't want the boss to know what he is up too he must find clever ways to tell everyone the inning and the score.

The movie feels a bit different compared to other Lloyd comedies yet keeps some of the characteristic of his screen persona.

Lloyd wanted to play a character that could be described as an "every man". Someone who looked like your next door neighbor. Of course Chaplin played the tramp, Harry Langdon was a man-child, Keaton never smiled and always fought with technology but Lloyd didn't wear baggy pants, have a funny walk or wear exaggerated make-up. He was an all-round American go-getter. He always fought to achieve the American Dream. He wanted to win the girl's heart and get married. He wanted to be a success at business and make lots of money. He was just like the people watching his movies, in search of a better life. And, if he believed in himself and went after something, he would get it, because that's what America is all about, right? Well, at least that is what we are told. If you work hard and go after what you want you will be a success. Forget climbing the corporate ladder, why, if Harold had to, he would climb the side of a building to reach the top.

Although "Speedy" may not have the popularity of "The Freshman" or "Safety Last", I believe it is an enjoyable comedy that works just as well as any other Lloyd comedy. It takes out a lot of what I find unnecessary in most of Lloyd's pictures and just gives us the goods. There is a consistent plot, funny routines and a thrill sequence at the end, which was typical of Lloyd's comedies. And, Lloyd is more active in the plot, making things happen instead of always being the victim of someone else's actions.

Who knows, maybe after I re-watch Lloyd's comedies again my opinion will change yet again but for now I  say watch "Speedy" and appreciate the comedy world of Harold Lloyd.

Some other interesting notes about the film is this was Harold Lloyd's last silent comedy. After this picture he would start to make sound pictures. His first was "Welcome Danger" (1929). "Speedy" was also nominated for an Academy Award in the now defunct category of Best Director, Comedy Picture for Ted Wilde, who had previously directed Lloyd in "The Kid Brother" and worked as a writer on a few other Lloyd comedies.