After finishing his application process for his Ambulance-Chasing Apprenticeship, G-Money (can I still call him that?) returns with a strong piece on Harold Lloyd’s silent-comedy masterpiece THE FRESHMAN, and I know he’s seen a lot of other Lloyd films recently.
Both [Charlie] Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton made movies with comic sensibilities that more accurately reflect the tastes of modern audiences. Keaton’s emotional passivity (nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” by his fans) and over-the-top physicality predicted the modern action film; Chaplin’s deeply introspective approach, postmodern sensibilities, and ability to not merely balance comedy and tragedy but to show how the two concepts spill into one another, inspired a generation of highbrow comic filmmakers from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach. By contrast, Lloyd was resolutely a product of his age–his films are full to bursting with the sort of roaring 20’s optimism that some find hopelessly naive. Yet Lloyd was a more perceptive judge of the character of life than many give him credit for, and he is unparalleled as an architect of comic narrative.
Visually, of the Big Three, the “screen world” that Lloyd created has by far the closest resemblance to the “real” world. In fact, Lloyd can hardly have said to have “created” a world at all — he shot on available locations, his character was the least stylized of the Big Three, and he made the least use for such vaudeville conventions as the grease-painted heavy. 1928’s SPEEDY was one of the first post-WW1 films, after the US film industry had centered on Los Angeles, to be shot on location in New York and Lloyd uses it to conspicuous advantage (Coney Island, cameo by Babe Ruth, subways, the final chase).
Compared to the Tramp and the Stoneface, Lloyd’s “Glasses Character” was both more instantly likable and more clearly a realistic social ego-ideal. Steve Greydanus compares him here to Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks (and calls THE KID BROTHER an all-time favorite). His character also can be seen in several different guises, depending on social class. Lloyd is sometimes the poor-boy dreamer (GIRL SHY, SPEEDY), sometimes the eager-beaver middle-class klutz (THE FRESHMAN, GRANDMA’S BOY) and sometimes the callow self-absorbed aristocrat (WHY WORRY?, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE). He even made some films where the tension between these “sides” of the Glasses character is central (AMONG THOSE PRESENT).
Precisely by having similar sets of traits — go-go optimism, pluck, awkwardness — and playing them out in different social contexts, Lloyd gave the Glasses character a richness and shading that some critics wrongly said it lacked. Or to put it another way, his Glasses character was, if not exactly classless, so easily adaptable among classes (“social mobility,” one might call it) as to make Lloyd the quintessentially *American* comedian of the 20s. Chaplin and Keaton were both, though in different ways, more universally-inclined. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s also nothing wrong with embracing a national muthos unselfconsciously and thus, in the work of the best artists, embodying that muthos, which is what Lloyd’s Glasses character eventually did.
To speak specifically of THE FRESHMAN, it has as much to say about the anxiety of the social climber and the pain of maturation as an outsider as any film of its era. It embraces the American muthos of middle-class achievement, but not uncritically or mindlessly. The image immediately above from THE FRESHMAN shows that Lloyd knew what he was doing, at some level. As Michael describes, Harold tries to be BMOC and popular socially through throwing parties, the closest analog to social mobility besides the thing itself. He’s “let in,” but only in order to string him along for the sake of a cruel joke by the real BMOCs. It all comes apart (literally) in the scene that Michael initially used to illustrate his post:
These fears [of social rejection] finally reach a breaking point at the massive dance Lloyd throws for the entire school, which descends into total chaos as his last-second tuxedo falls into pieces while he’s wearing it … and ends in the crushing realization that his massive efforts to become the school’s social king have gone to naught.
Besides being enormously funny as Harold tries six ways to Sunday to save face by having a tailor at the dance behind a curtain, the key to why this sequence works is something so archetypal it could hardly have been conscious. I don’t want to sound like Zizek here, but having one’s clothes come apart while wearing them is as close as a 1920s movie could come to one of the commonest dreams, and THE metaphor for humiliating social exposure — suddenly finding oneself naked in a public place. Considering that the tux was a last-minute order and stitched together — the metaphor hardly needs elaboration.
There’s one other way in which Lloyd was THE 20s American comedian, and it’s a point I’m indebted to Richard Schickel for making (I did notice it some myself, though not as clearly as he did and I’ll swipe his examples). The early 20th century was the time where America made the transition from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. By the time of Lloyd’s 1920s, the two societies existed uneasily together, side-by-side. Lloyd himself, like many men born in the Gay 90s (1893) was raised in one world but by adulthood was living in another.
It’s not simply that Lloyd’s films record this fact, but they are utterly unselfconscious about it, while often making this contrast the very subject of his humor. One reason that the iconic image of Harold hanging from a clock in SAFETY LAST has become so famous is not just its technical difficulty and danger, but because so much archetypal meaning is packed away in it — the skyscraper as an image of material progress combined with dangling from a height / fear of falling. And it’s integrated into movie. The scene occurs because Harold has pretended to be better off than he is to impress his girl, but she now wants to marry and, through plot complications, his efforts to prove himself worthy forces him into this stunt — social climbing morphs into literal climbing. With the ever-present fear of falling, again made scarily literal on the skyscraper.
To the 20s world of Lloyd, the automobile is also a status symbol, an icon of literal mobility, of upward mobility, of personal worth, and untold possibility. Including the possibility of being bitten in the ass. In HOT WATER (shown above), which untypically begins with a marriage, Harold tries to impress his new in-laws by showing off his new car. In a hilarious sequence of gags, the car completely falls apart like his FRESHMAN tuxedo, progressively and more-harshly humiliating him before the toughest audience a man faces in his life (his parents-in-law).
There’s a contrast also worth noting — one scene involves mishaps with a fire engine. Which is powered by a single horse. This exists unremarked-upon alongside a private automobile — like rabbit ears alongside cable TV; and dial-up alongside WiFi. But the clash between the two befuddles and humiliates Harold — the key to his great satirical theme.
One of Lloyd’s greatest films, SPEEDY, is about his efforts to save a horse-drawn tram line in New York City (yes … you read that right) from takeover by Big Transport at the center of the world. In the climactic chase scene of an earlier film, GIRL SHY, Lloyd uses a half-dozen means of transportation, some already obsolete or obsolescent, others of the latest vintage, and without ever commenting on this beyond using their advantages and disadvantages for gags (which is all we can be certain Lloyd himself was conscious of; like the greatest American artists, he never tried for Art).
This common thread runs through more than half of Lloyd’s features — a world the then-new fad called the automobile, and all it symbolized, shared with horse-drawn fire engines and even horse-drawn New York mass transit, and what they stood for. Lloyd may use it explicitly as story or just unselfconsciously use its facticity in the world for gag material, but it became his great theme — dislocation of technology. Schickel puts it “He was not writing on film an early version of ‘Future Shock.’ But it is there to see if one has the eyes to see it.”
Nor is this theme, though the 20s experienced it in the specific ways I described, a theme obsolete. Think of all the jokes (and how they are already obsolete) about people of my parents’ generation not being able to program their VCRs and the flashing “00:00.” And how they now apply to my generation and Generation Wired, for whom MySpace, cell-phone cameras and IMs are the only world they know. A 40-year-old fogey like me cannot blog “a link with no comment” but rather will go on and on, because he thinks of blog posting in essay terms, and for literary value and commentary. Technological society makes a person obsolete by a certain age because the world you know, and shape yourself in accord with, will never last long.
All these very qualities, of timeliness without explicit topicality, certainly “date” Lloyd’s films more precisely than Chaplin’s and Keaton’s, which certainly gives them greater “time capsule” value. But it doesn’t make them “dated” in the bad sense, and while time-capsule value isn’t everything, it’s not nothing either, and it becomes especially and increasingly valuable as the 1920s leave the world of living memory.
“The day they knocked down the Palais, part of my childhood died”
— “Come Dancing,” The Kinks
When I was a boy, one of my favorite shows was MATCH GAME, and I didn’t even come close to realizing how brilliant it was at the time. But whenever as an adult I had access to the Game Show Network, I would watch the reruns and love every minute of it. Over the years, it creeped up on me the reason that MATCH GAME holds up so well — it was just as much a comedy show as a game show. Watching MATCH GAME, the outcome is hardly the point, you’re eavesdropping on a bunch of wits trying to spontaneously outdo one another. The interaction between Gene, Brett, Charles and Richard (I don’t even think last names are necessary), along with the occasional spice of variety from Fannie Flagg, Betty White, Mary Wickes and others, became the life of the show, and the reason it is still watchable to this day.
All the jokes about Brett’s wigs, Richard’s roving eye, Charles’s flambuoyance, Gene’s leering lip-smacking, some ventures into real politically-incorrect humor with Scoey Mitchell, Gene’s horrible voices and imitations, Richard’s Wildean persona, the ditzes like Joyce Bulifant and Patti Deutsch, “that motel in Encino.” To the TV exec, it was unconscionable the way the panel wasted so much time on MATCH GAME with theatrical “bits” like (I am not kidding) once everybody dancing on the set and all the celebrities once walking off the set in mock protest of who-cares-what. The in-jokes piled upon the in-jokes, particularly with the bickering between Brett and Charles, nudging “Pathetic Answer of the Year” cards into the other’s frame.
My first interaction with Rod Dreher, who’s since become a face-time friend, was an intense e-male bonding experience over our shared love for the 70s game shows of our TV-obsessed boyhoods (we’re only a year apart). Rod wrote:
I’ve got on my refrigerator a yellowed newspaper photo of Charles Nelson Reilly, Brett Somers and Gene Rayburn in a publicity still from the show. My wife, born in 1975, thinks I’m a weirdo. I cannot in good faith contradict her. I remember calling my mom to hurry and pick me up from my friend’s house so I could get home on New Year’s Day in time to watch the Match Game ’73 sign change over to Match Game ’74.
And my commiepinkobud Michael Sicinski put the show’s brilliance together better than I can (quoted with permission):
I think the show stands up as one of the major pop culture contributions of the 70s. I used to watch it as a kid and enjoyed it, but watching it on GSN today I realize just how awesome it was. Nothing like that could be on TV today, where even so-called reality TV is processed into generically recognizable tropes and stock characters. MATCH GAME is so loosey-goosey, so extemporaneous, that it really just seems like they’d be playing the game whether there were cameras or not. You can watch them on the podiums, smoking and even occasionally taking a drink of god-knows-what. Some episodes, you can see Charles and Brett becoming increasingly inebriated as the show goes on. And the coy ribaldry, the silly yet honest nods to “women’s lib” and the dawning consciousness of gay culture (with or without Charles), all of this makes it a time capsule, but really, so much more. It is an amazing aesthetic object, with its own rules and rituals, right down to the orange shag carpeting. On a purely sculptural level, the old PRICE IS RIGHT is a better work of art, but in terms of performance and overall package, it’s MATCH GAME hands down. And lest we forget, Gene Rayburn was the greatest game show host of them all, a rare mix of Barker’s avuncular style with the lecherousness of your creepy Uncle Ned. The slicked-back Max Headroomisms of [Bert] Convy and [Wink] Martindale are the prototype of game show hosting, sadly, because they are safely slimy and easily mocked. Rayburn understood that it was all silly dinner theatre and conducted himself with humor and self-deprecation. …
(Needless to say, I was not only pissed, but felt that it exemplified my disconnection from current pop culture’s values of slick professionalism, when Alec Baldwin mocked CNR on SNL’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” parody. Holding Reilly up as the nadir of celebrity and talent…what could possibly miss the point more thoroughly?)
Three men as different as me, Rod and Michael all loved the same show and for pretty much the same set of reasons. And part of our boyhoods died at the weekend, announced earlier today.
Something else is dead too. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized that on MATCH GAME, Charles and Brett (whom he sometimes called “Auntie Brett,” a reference whose full meaning only just now “clicked” with me as I typed those words in) were basically doing a “fag hag” routine. But 12-year-old me, watching the show for the first time, never had any clue about the cultural buttons being pushed, the references, though I did laugh at it. “Gay,” “homosexual” “fag hag” … none of it meant anything to me. And I don’t think that, as a 12-year-old, any of it should have.
Wikipedia claims that MATCH GAME “pushed the boundaries of 1970s television standards.” That may be the case, but it misses the point that the boundaries remained and were, in fact, key to what made their bickering so funny and so enduring. Charles and Brett and Richard and Gene were brilliant comedians because they knew how to deliver a dirty joke in a clean way, in the classic double entendre, which has become a lost art as content standards have waned.
But this pre-pubescent MATCH GAME fan remembers all the innuendo (which the adult fan well catches) going over his head. In fact, what is very much part of the fun (watching it now at 40) is appreciating the tension in how the MATCH GAME team were so deft as to get away with so much while keeping the surface G-rated.
Sex and sexuality are legitimate subjects for humor, and I have no per se moral problem with locker-room jokes. But the double entendre is not only funny, but respects the innocence of some in the audience through its “double meaning” (in a slightly different context, Ernst Lubitsch noted that if you tell the audience “2 and 2,” they don’t need to be told “4”). But when comedians can say whatever they want, you don’t need a Bocaccio to write in “The Decameron” of a randy groundskeeper at a convent that “he tended all their gardens.”
Hopefully, there won’t be a big stink in conservative circles over the fact that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS — a movie about a quest for an illegal abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania — won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious and important film festival.
I fear the worst though, if there’s much knee-jerking or the word about this film gets out the wrong way. Especially given the headlines from the US press — CNN: “Cannes’ top prize goes to film about abortion” (complete with a picture of Jane Fonda granting the top prize and kissing the director; how many buttons could they push if trying); ABC/Associated Press: “Romanian Abortion Film Wins Cannes Prize”; Drudge (from Agence France-Presse): “Top Cannes award for harrowing Romanian abortion film.”
The film has been noted in the Catholic blogosphere — at American Papist, Catholic Fire and Creative Minority Report — and the common ground is sight-unseen suspicion without very good or even much-stated reasons, even of the kind that are justified sight-unseen. I certainly understand the suspicion to a degree, but VERA DRAKE a “rather mediocre” movie? I didn’t think so. Peter Chattaway didn’t. Jeffrey Overstreet didn’t. I asked Mike D’Angelo, who saw 4 MONTHS at Cannes, how he’d guess I’d react to the “abortion film.” Though Mike is, in his words, “a fairly devout atheist,” he knows my tastes and dispositions (including my religious beliefs) fairly well. This was his answer, cited with permission:
I can’t say, but if you don’t like it I doubt it’ll be for political/moral reasons. It’s an “abortion film” the way SAFE is an “environmental illness” film.
So I remain very optimistic that 4 MONTHS will be a good film in itself though, and it’s not simply because I had VERA DRAKE in my Top 5. I really liked THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, the last “harrowing” Romanian movie to come garlanded with Cannes prizes, and also dug 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST when I saw it last year.
There is neutral-to-favorable comment at Lifesite; (some AFP versions of the story even labeled the Cannes prize-winners as “death-obsessed”); nobody from Cannes that I’m aware of was calling 4 MONTHS a great blow for women’s freedom or against the fascist godbag patriarchy or any of the rest of that. And the comments from the director Cristian Mungiu in this Australian ABC article are somewhat encouraging, given the audience and the fact that he was speaking in a language not his own:
Because of the pressure of the regime, women and families were so much concerned about not being caught for making an illegal abortion that they didn’t give one minute of thought about the moral issue … [putting the baby onscreen] makes a point — people should be aware of the consequences of their decisions.
OK, not Father Pavone, but certainly no reason to be suspicious of his movie, which is for most, still sight-unseen. Given the reports the Cannes lineup was unusually strong this year, I am psyched.