Sunday, June 21, 2015

Film Review: Grandma's Boy

"Grandma's Boy"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Grandma's Boy" (1922) is a Harold Lloyd comedy that does nearly everything right.

In "Grandma's Boy" Harold Lloyd plays the classic character every comedian in the silent era and into the early sound comedies would play. A timid, cowardly man who secretly loved the pretty girl but she was always being pursued by the more aggressive, better looking jock that always bullied our timid hero. It is a classic comedy persona that audiences could see traces of in Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jack Benny and even Woody Allen.

Prior to making "Grandma's Boy" Harold Lloyd starred in two-reeler gag pictures. These were often twenty minute comedies short on plot but heavy on sight gags. They did not offer much character development but instead served the purpose of doing anything for a laugh. Some of them are quite good; "Never Weaken" (1921) and "Now or Never" (1921) among them. However, starting in the 1920s Harold Lloyd and his comedy contemporaries (Chaplin, Keaton and Harry Langdon) were starting to make feature-length comedies. Chaplin made "The Kid" (1920) and Keaton "The Saphead" (1920). Of the truly great comics of the silent era only Charley Chase didn't make a splash in feature-length movies. When "Grandma's Boy" was released Lloyd had appeared in one other movie, "A Sailor Made Man" (1921), which plays around with some of the same ideas but it is "Grandma's Boy" which time has been kinder to and film historians point to as a turning point in Lloyd's career.

"Grandma's Boy" does for Harold Lloyd what "The Kid"  or "The Gold Rush" (1925) did for Chaplin. It takes their humorous character and situates it in a story where the character can engage in comedic situations but also creates a framework for more character development and a serious (enough) plot where pathos (in Chaplin's case) or romantic (in Lloyd's case) scenarios could be played out. The movies are now not just funny, gag pictures but stories with a human interest. The viewer doesn't go from joke to joke to joke but instead the plot may take a breather so it may develop its plot and create character motivation.

Of course when taking this approach your movie may not be as funny as your gag pictures. You need to find a story which can allow a proper balance and lend itself to good comedic set-pieces. "Grandma's Boy" works well enough in this area however I must be honest and say I do not laugh as much watching this movie as I do watching "Safety Last" (1923), "The Freshman" (1925) or even "Speedy" (1928). Still, "Grandma's Boy" has much to admire and appreciate and helped established the "glasses" character Harold Lloyd would continue to play in subsequential  pictures.

This time around Harold plays "Grandma's Boy" though if you are able to read the actor's lips they call him "Harold". Harold is a nineteen year old man who has always had a passive nature, even as a baby when we see another baby steal a cookie he was eating. Rather than start trouble our young Harold would just let other kids pick on him. Now that he is an adult Harold finds himself taken by "The Girl" (Mildred Davis, who appeared in several of Lloyd's comedies and eventually married him) who may like him back but Harold has competition for her attention in "His Rival" (Charles Stevenson) who repeatedly pushes Harold aside.

Harold lives with his Grandmother (Anna Townsend), who in an effort to help Harold gain bravery creates a story about Harold's grandfather who fought in the Civil War. Harold's grandfather was also a coward but one day he received a magic charm from an elderly lady. The charm had powers which would protect whoever held it from great danger. Harold's grandmother still has the charm and decides to give it to her grandson in order to restore his confidence.

It is a simple enough story and the movie's running time is only 58 minutes but "Grandma's Boy" does practically everything it needed to do to make this comedy work. First it creates the character "Harold". It establishes his personality and his cowardice nature. It quickly introduces the main characters and sets-up the conflict; Harold loves the girl but fears she does not notice him because he is constantly bullied. He needs to prove himself as a man and demonstrate his masculinity so she may notice him. After the plot is layed-out the movie creates many good comedy sequences and at the end of the picture provides Harold Lloyd the opportunity to engage in a lot of physical comedy which displays his great athletic ability, which became a staple in several of his comedies. The only thing missing is a really exciting thrill sequence. Too bad there wasn't a building for him to climb!

While I admit "Grandma's Boy" doesn't strike me as one of Lloyd's funniest pictures I do admire the structure of the movie and that more than anything is what leads me to recommend it. It is a nice lesson in comedy writing. The movie does have its laughs but tries to go for something a little extra in creating a decent story and interesting characters instead of mainly focusing on the jokes.

Though there are some good comedy sequences. A very good one involves Harold visiting the Girl and her family for Sunday dinner. Harold is wearing a very old suit and notices there are mothballs inside of it. Embarrassed by this Harold tries to hide them and accidentally places them in a candy box. As you may guess, the Girl offers Harold a piece of candy, only she gets the chose which piece he eats and she unknowingly gives him the mothball, which Harold doesn't realize until it is too late.

Another good sequence involves a posse trying to find a tramp that has murdered a man. It is Harold that captures the tramp by using various inventive ways to bring him back to the town. One involves him forcing the tramp to pull Harold, who is sitting in a wheelbarrow.

There is an interesting social commentary here on masculinity even if it is not an entirely original concept. In order for a man to feel like a man he must display strength. W.C. Fields appeared in a silent comedy himself called "Running Wild" (1927) which was much more forthcoming with this theme, going as far as to say, women secretly want a man to be aggressive towards them. "Grandma's Boy" doesn't go that far but instead suggest power is what gives a man confidence. Without strength a man is not a man.

Another idea expressed is, self-esteem is all a mind game. People rely upon lucky charms to make them better people when in reality it is all non-sense. We all have greatness within ourselves we just need to believe in ourselves. Once we do that then we can reach our potential.

It is that concept which would become the basis for the "glasses" character Lloyd played. Lloyd's character was an All-American type that would slowly gain confidence in himself. He was a go-getter. He believed in the "American Dream" and actively sought to pursue it. He wanted to get married and have a family. He strived to live in a big house with a white picket fence. He believed if he worked hard good things would happen to him. He would get that promotion at work. He would become a manager one day. He was a part of society unlike Chaplin's "Tramp" character, which was always on the outside looking in. The "Tramp" wanted to participate in society but society shunned him because of his looks. Harold Lloyd on the other hand looked like your neighbor.

"Grandma's Boy" is a good comedy illustrating the typical traits in the Lloyd character. For me it lacks the really big laughs in some other Lloyd comedies but it makes up for it with story structure and character development. Lloyd is trying to engage his audience on a different level and succeeds.