By Phillip Lopate
In his memoir, An American Comedy (cowritten with Wesley W. Stout), Harold Lloyd asserts that while growing up “I was average and typical of the time and place.” He continues: “Supposing Atlantic City had been holding Average American Boy contests, with beauty waived, I might have been Master America most any year between 1893 and 1910.” This insistence was not random; it suited someone who doggedly set out to create a type on-screen as close as he could make it to an average specimen—a mirror image of the American audience. The fact that the man who said this was anything but average, a brilliantly gifted physical performer with a genius for constructing comic gags, who moreover understood the film medium with greater sophistication than all but a handful of his peers, speaks to both his modesty and his vanity. It also approaches the mystery of why audiences today may find it harder to connect with Harold Lloyd than they do with, say, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. He embodied the spirit of the American dream that any average individual with gumption could attain success, an ideal that still seemed within reach in the twenties, before the Depression, Vietnam, and national disenchantment.
Chaplin flirted perennially with pathos, Keaton with melancholy, while Lloyd went his merry way, positive thinking and triumphant. “It’s the optimism,” wrote his defender Richard Griffith, “which chiefly sticks in the highbrow craw and accounts for the continued fundamental lack of interest in him and the continued rating of him below Chaplin, Keaton, and even [Harry] Langdon. Weltschmerz is hard to find in him . . .” And not just world-sorrow, but alienation of any sort. David Thomson gets it right, as usual: “Early clowns are all outsiders, men incapable of, or uninterested in, society’s scale of merit. Chaplin admits the scale but criticizes it. Langdon never notices it. Keaton is bewildered by it, the Marx Brothers know it is a lie, Laurel and Hardy believe it will never come their way. But Lloyd became the least deviant of comedians, a man who never dreamed of being out of the ordinary.” Still, this judgment needs to be complicated, because only a profoundly and uniquely imaginative artist—by definition, an outsider—can take on his shoulders the burden of synthesizing the entire society around him and fashioning an archetype from it that will play in Peoria. A lack of deviancy, moreover, does not account for the sheer inventiveness and pleasure that can still be found in abundance in Lloyd’s films, particularly his four best features, Grandma’s Boy (1922), Safety Last! (1923), The Freshman (1925), and Speedy (1928).
As good a place to start as any is Speedy. The title alone tips off Lloyd’s comic approach, which is to keep up a pace so rapid that no lingering sentimentality or sadness can attach. Fittingly, the film is set in New York City, where, the opening titles tell us, everyone is in such a rush. Whether or not the expression “a New York minute” was yet current, the idea that the city represented the forefront of hectic modernity already held sway. We see establishing shots of trains, tugboats, crowds all hurtling by. Eventually, we are brought to a slower neighborhood, where the most gradual and archaic of conveyances is introduced: a horse-drawn streetcar, driven by Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), the grandfather of Lloyd’s love interest, Jane (played winningly by Ann Christy).
At a very basic level, the film is about modes of transport, and its rhythm is largely dictated by many shots of people rushing via taxi, subway, streetcar, and motorcycle. It is also about an older way of being, a more traditionally communal, unhurried morality, in conflict with the new, headlong corporate capitalism that sprang up in the Gilded Age with the railroad barons and now seemed well-nigh unstoppable. The plot hinges, in fact, on a villainous railroad company that seeks to drive the old horsecar line out of business and take over its tracks.
The protagonist, also named Harold, and nicknamed Speedy, would appear to be in harmony with this burgeoning capitalist ethos: he is ambitious and in a hurry to succeed, the very prototype of “the aggressive bourgeois ego which George Santayana saw emerge in the industrializing U.S.—the go-getting American with no higher aim than diligent imitation of the rich . . .” (Pankaj Mishra). But because he is in love with Jane, and she with him, he ends up allying with Pop Dillon and his elderly neighbor-friends against the big shots. Lloyd’s character may be a go-getter, but he is also fundamentally decent and in sympathy with the little guys—his coworkers at the soda fountain and the small shopkeepers who come to his aid when the railroad company tries to seize the horsecar. A full-scale donnybrook occurs between the neighborhood geezers and the railroad thugs, and the point of it is that our hero needs all the help he can get from the People. A veteran uses a peg leg to his advantage. A Chinese laundryman applies his hot iron to the seats of the bad guys. (There is also a loyal dog that keeps coming to Speedy’s aid.) A sort of popular-front politics can be read into these scenes, which if nothing else celebrate the enduring values of neighborhood diversity and local community against the impersonal globalizing corporation.
Speedy is an urban variant of the “boy with the glasses” character that Lloyd had been painstakingly refining for years (and that very nickname had been used earlier for The Freshman’s protagonist). Lloyd had stumbled on the idea of giving his character a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles (lensless, since glass would becloud the eyes’ expression). The glasses were meant to signify a nerdy milquetoast type, from whom one would not expect much derring-do, and who would therefore pleasantly surprise the audience when he rose to heroic challenges. Speedy is given a few other characteristics, such as being unable to hold down a job because he is so obsessed with the Yankees (the cameo featuring a game Babe Ruth, who gets bounced around in Speedy’s cab, is a nice little eye-opener). But in general, we are asked to accept that Speedy is simply Youth in its most healthy, energetic, and accident-prone form.
Lloyd divided his movies into “character pictures” and “gag pictures”: The former, like Grandma’s Boy, took longer to set up the plot and had more psychological shadings. Speedy is decidedly a gag picture: the pace alone, with its wealth of sight jokes, dictated that there would not be enough time for much character development. In various sections, such as the long taxi-driving sequence, the gags flow outrageously yet organically into each other. “Lloyd was outstanding even among the master craftsmen at setting up a gag clearly, culminating and getting out of it deftly, and linking it smoothly to the next,” wrote James Agee. One extended sequence, Speedy’s date with Jane at Coney Island, may suffice as example.
It begins in the subway, with much pushing and shoving. In his memoir, Lloyd quips: “The Subway is a comedy all by itself, except to those who have to ride in it.” Again, we are treated to an ethnically and physiognomically diverse batch of New York humanity. Speedy contrives to get seats for his girl and himself by a trick involving a dollar bill on a string, which he dangles before a seated passenger to entice him to stand, then pulls away. A bit shady, unfair, not entirely what you’d expect from the supposedly proper Speedy, but—entrepreneurial, shall we say. At Luna Park, Speedy is the height of fatuous self-content, with his loving girl beside him and a week’s wages in his pocket, and a new white suit that makes him feel dressed for success. It does not take long for the suit to be marred, first by an overfriendly dog whose paws deface his trousers, then by his leaning against a freshly painted fence. Passersby laugh at the black bars on his jacket, and he has no idea why until he turns around and sees the pattern in a fun-house mirror. Next he passes a fish stand, and a crab lands in his pocket, leading to a set of mishaps in which the crab pinches ladies’ behinds and, in one case, steals a nightgown from a handbag. The women slap Speedy, thinking him a deviant masher, and he reacts with astonishment and self-righteousness. The humor here flows from the Lloyd character’s thinking he is an utterly normal, upstanding citizen, while those in his vicinity view him as a pervert. Here I am making the case that Lloyd’s comedy derives precisely from challenging his character’s assumptions of being the quintessence of average and normal.
Lloyd was a veteran of one- and two-reel comedies made for producer Hal Roach (Mack Sennett’s rival). It was a school that taught him to brainstorm ideas with story and gag writers but never to work from finished scripts, instead trusting to improvisation and inspiration on location for building elaborations on a gag onto a comic bit. “Our lack of method is deplorable, but somehow it works,” he testified. While he often directed parts of his pictures, he omitted taking directorial credit, preferring to help out the ex–gag writer designated for that job and perhaps feeling it was sufficient that the public knew the film reflected his own comic vision. Ted Wilde is listed as the director of Speedy, but the whole notion of auteurism seems a little spurious when it comes to silent comedy. By whatever collaborations the film came about, the result hangs together as a fresh, kinetic, fast-moving affair. The Coney Island sequence, for instance, has some beautiful cutaways to the fairway at night, some surreal dream swirls when Speedy and Jane are trying out every punishing ride, and a hysterical fantasy shot of twin babies with Harold-like spectacles riding in the moving van driving the couple home, which they pretend is their future abode.
By the film’s conclusion, Speedy has gotten his girl by saving Pop Dillon’s horsecar business, and all ends happily. In an interview with Lloyd long after he retired (he did not self-destruct, like many other silent film stars, but was a business-shrewd steward of his heritage), he was asked to compare Chaplin’s Tramp to his boy with glasses. “Well, Charlie generally had to play the losing lover because his character was the Little Tramp—who was a little grotesque. If he won the girl, she generally had to be off beat, a little screwy . . . But with this boy-with-the-glasses character—that was one of his virtues: he wore ordinary clothes, the same as the boy next door. He was somebody you’d pass on the street—and therefore his romances were believable. And I would say that I got the girl most every time. Generally, in many of Charlie’s pictures, he walked down the road at the end, which had its own virtue.”
We see in this passage Lloyd’s evenhanded sense of perspective, though his penultimate statement about getting the girl might strike some nowadays as a little smug. Still, as he said, each—Chaplin’s final saddening aloneness and his own cheerful romantic triumph—has its place. And Lloyd had a purer sense than most of what it meant to keep audiences laughing. He was a profound student of the art of comedy, as well as one of its most ebullient practitioners.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell. He directs the nonfiction program at Columbia University.