The Third Man
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.
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