In 1919, rising silent-movie comedy actor Harold Lloyd lit a prop bomb with a cigarette, only to learn the hard way that it was the real thing. The bomb exploded in his right hand, costing him his index finger and thumb -- but not his career as a slapstick star. Lloyd disguised his loss by wearing a glove that passed for an unharmed hand on the black-and-white screen.
So while it's undeniably impressive that Lloyd did his own wildly risky stunts in his feature films, most famously climbing a building in 1923's Safety Last, the fact that Lloyd dangled from ledges, ropes and an oversized clock with only eight fingers makes his feats positively jaw-dropping.
That bit of inside dope can enhance your appreciation of Landmark Midtown Art Cinema's retrospective of Harold Lloyd's cliff-hanging comedies, running Sept. 16-22. But the six feature films, dating from 1923-1927, still hold together, even as they showcase a comic persona trying to keep his world from spinning apart.
A fallacy about silent films is that they're too slow for contemporary attention spans accustomed to high-speed editing techniques. In truth, screen comics of Lloyd's generation crack joke after joke at the rate of vaudeville performers who'd be pelted with tomatoes if audiences got bored.
Lloyd specialized in "thrill comedies" built around elaborate, terrifying stunts beyond the dreams of "Jackass'" Johnny Knoxville. Fittingly, Lloyd's best-known film Safety Last (Sept. 16-17, 5 stars) revolves partly around a crowd-gathering public spectacle. Lloyd's character, called "The Kid," seeks advancement at a department store by enlisting a wall-crawling buddy to scale a building as a publicity stunt. Fate eventually results in the terrified Kid ascending the edifice himself. Floor by floor he faces hungry pigeons, stray planks, vicious dogs, even a mouse in his pants that causes him to dance spastically along a ledge.
Lloyd dangling from the clock hands provides a timeless image of both silent-era film and the 20th century's treatment of average citizens. Lloyd's bespectacled screen persona embodied the never-say-die American spirit, but his films always find him under the gun, desperately innovating ways to race against time.
Film historians link Lloyd's can-do characters to the optimism of the "roaring '20s," but the stories stress financial desperation that feels more suitable to the Great Depression or any other Age of Anxiety. The Kid spends Safety Last building himself up as a business success for his small-town fiancée, while he struggles to keep his job and pay bills in the big city. A memorable sequence begins with a close-up of The Kid, seemingly in the throes of a mental breakdown: The camera backs away to reveal him trying to weather a riot of rapacious housewives at a dress sale.
Speedy (Sept. 18-19, 3 stars), Lloyd's last silent feature, culminates with a down-to-the-wire chase on a horse-drawn trolley. As a scrappy baseball fan nicknamed Speedy, Lloyd careens down New York streets as if a spectacular accident could happen any minute -- and when he actually crashes, you gasp. Lloyd's films cry out for the kind of Jackie Chan-style outtake reels that show the times when stunts inevitably went wrong.
Speedy lacks Safety Last's plot sharpness and inventive gags, but provides a charming time capsule of old New York, particularly the city's public transportation system and Coney Island attractions. Babe Ruth ("the idol of American boys -- little and big") turns up for a funny extended cameo terrified by Speedy's reckless taxi driving. The nostalgic downside comes when Lloyd's films echo the gross ethnic stereotyping of the era, such as Speedy's wacky Chinese laundry man or Safety Last's greedy, hand-wringing Jewish jeweler.
Today, Lloyd perpetually comes up third behind his contemporary screen rivals Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and for sound reasons. Chaplin and Keaton weren't just superbly talented performers but also important directors who pushed the young medium's capacity for emotional content and technical innovation. If Lloyd lacks their influence in film history, he remains a rousing comedian who embodies the tireless efforts of 20th century man trying to beat the clock.
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