Wednesday, November 18, 2015
I've long been a staunch defender of Buster Keaton as the grandmaster of silent comedy over the sentimental and dated Chaplin. But here comes Harold Lloyd, the wild card exploding the idea of any binary perspective on an era's worth of the medium's humor. Lloyd is every bit as funny as the two more famous stars - as modern and clever as Keaton and as likable and charismatic as Chaplin. Perhaps because he didn't direct his own films the actor never got the recognition he deserved in the auteur age, but hopefully these Criterion releases will help spur a reevaluation of his work.
After Safety Last and The Freshman, two classics that deserve to be placed alongside the great comedies of any era, Speedy seems slight in comparison. But that doesn't take away from its energy or sheer entertainment value. The film revolves around a timeless comedic conflict - an old man's outdated business (in this case a horse-drawn trolley in New York) is trying to be gobbled up by a greedy corrupt businessman who wants to create a conglomeration to make even more money. Lloyd is charged with getting the man the compensation he deserves, mainly because he wants to marry the man's granddaughter. Hilarity (and suspense) expectedly ensue.
Along the way, the film occasionally descends into a strong of bits, most notably when the couple takes a largely unnecessary jaunt to Coney Island. Yet even in this stretch there are moments of incredible comedic sophistication. The most notable for me was the sequence in which Lloyd eats more than it seems like he really should. The film cuts to Lloyd's back and we see he is bent over and heaving, presumably from vomiting, while his fiance comforts him. Just as it seems like the shot is going on too long the camera pans back to reveal Lloyd has been blowing into a hose that tests his lungs at the carnival. There's another later bit that uses viewer obstruction involving a dog's tail - both times it's as surprising as it is funny, a masterful use of the young medium. It's also worth noting the cameo of Babe Ruth, a reminder that celebrity appearances in comedies are not a new trend and further cementing the film's appeal as a forward-looking comedy trying to deliver fresh ideas as much as it wants to make you laugh.
The other star of the film is of course New York City, and this might be what makes Speedy so special. We get a number of great looks at the Big Apple of 1928, but the most sustained exhibit is the final horse race through the streets. Lloyd rushes by the public library, slams into an elevated train post, and rushes under the Washington Square Arch and by the fountain. 1928 was the thick of change for the city, when cars were completely taking over and the Depression had yet to wreak havoc. It's a city that doesn't feel so different from the one now, albeit with more independent craft stores (including a nice stereotypical Chinese laundry owner!) and subways running overhead. It's even more thrilling than the city depicted in Lonesome, and Speedy's slick technique and artful comedy weave in and out of the city so effortlessly that the whole film buzzes with the energy of the city. I wouldn't go so far as to call Speedy a classic - its structure isn't as elegant as the other Lloyd films in the Collection - but it is a must-see for fans of silent comedy and New Yorkers interested in the city's past.