Monday, May 2, 2011

Speedy (1928)

Harold Lloyd and Ann Christy
If you're having a bad day--your dog died, you lost your job, or for whatever reason you're just feeling blue--then find a copy of Speedy, Harold Lloyd's final silent film, get yourself a hot dog and some cracker jacks, and settle in for the ride of your life. I can't think of another film that can match it for its excitement, fun, and, well, love of trolley cars.

I love Harold Lloyd, I'm not ashamed to say. Even his weaker films have so much to offer, that I feel I may never tire of revisiting them. Speedy, on the other hand.. oh my, there's just nothing else like it. It is by far the biggest of his films. He doesn't climb any skyscrapers in this one, but everything else is huge--the New York location shooting, a fantastic street brawl that takes up virtually an entire city block pitting a gang of Civil War vets against a group of young thugs (naturally, the thugs don't stand a chance), the best chase sequence of Lloyd's career, dragging a horse-drawn trolley off its rails through perilous Manhattan traffic at breakneck speed, and, as the cherry on top of this enormous sundae of goodness, the great Bambino himself, the same year he set the record for 60 home runs, gets one on camera for Harold Lloyd.

Ted Wilde was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director in a Comedy for his work with Speedy (the only year that category existed), and it is easy to see why. The film moves at a breakneck pace from start to finish, interrupted only by brief pauses in the action that seem designed primarily to accentuate the acceleration when it kicks back in gear. And of course, that's as it should be, this is New York, after all. The decision to film in New York was a radical one at the time, and in fact it was still a radical decision twenty years later for Gene Kelly in On the Town. All the usual difficulties of location shooting are compounded by the crowds and tight spaces, the difficulty getting around, and the need to transport crews and equipment from California studios clear across the country. The incredible popularity of Harold Lloyd in the late twenties and the appearance made by Babe Ruth made things even more challenging for the crew to keep control of the crowds. Lloyd was used to location shooting, as most of his films were made in whole or in part on the streets of LA, but this was his only New York film. His granddaughter Suzanne speculated that Harold, who was a big lover of amusement parks, simply decided he wanted to go to Coney Island, and that shooting a movie was as good an excuse as any.

One of many New York exteriors in the film.
Harold, nicknamed Speedy in the film (as he was in real life), is a good-natured kid who can't keep a steady job. The problem, it transpires, is his love of baseball, which tends to get in the way of his serious calling as a soda jerk. He's new at the job, but that doesn't seem to slow him down. He tosses scoops of ice cream and cherries around the drug store counter like something out of Cocktail, that is, when he gets a minute free from calling in to check on the Yankees. Soon enough, we move from the drug store out into the streets, and Wilde's views of Times Square are just breathtaking. It is worth taking note that there is no stock footage used in this film, that everything was shot by the Harold Lloyd Studios, and has been maintained in pristine condition. If you ever wanted to know what New York looked like in the 20's, here it is, plain as day.

Of particular interest to history buffs is the portion filmed at Coney Island, a truly delightful bit of filmmaking. There is not a trace of plot to be found here, and thank goodness. Everything was filmed with hidden cameras, so Harold and leading lady Ann Christy got to play like they were just out having fun. Strategically placed actors kept the gags rolling, but for the most part, the people you see are just normal New Yorkers enjoying their weekend. The filming is superb. Cameras film from one car to the next on the roller coaster, the flying planes, bumper cars, and the famous Steeplechase. There's this fantastic game Harold and Ann play, where a bunch of people gather and sit on a big wheel that spins really fast, and throws them all off onto the sidelines. The last one left on the wheel wins. There's no way such a thing could exist today, as it would be far too dangerous, but it sure looks like fun. This sequence is absolutely wonderful start to finish. The gags are fresh and entertaining as usual, and surprisingly risque--Harold gives his own reflection the finger after discovering that he has spoiled his new suit with wet paint, and accidentally steals a girl's underwear from her bag. She responds cryptically with, "You're the kind of man that makes women afraid to wear underwear!" 

Harold and Ann on the bumper cars.
Best of all, though, are the car chases. You know how in old movies no one ever watches the road while they're driving? The drivers always turn around in their seats, talking to the person next to them, blissfully unconcerned with the impossibly fake street scenes passing by the windows? This is not that movie. Don't get me wrong, Harold never watches the road. But whether he's driving a taxi with Babe Ruth cowering in the back seat, or behind the reins of the last operational horse drawn street car in New York, the scenes passing by the windows are completely real. Harold's taxi is on a flat bed pushed in front of a truck piloted by an extremely brave stunt driver, the camera crew bringing up the rear in an ambulance, sirens blaring, moving at top speed through highly populated streets. Cars and pedestrians scramble to get out of the way, and believe it or not, they're not actors.

The trolley car with the horse at full gallop, whizzing through real New York streets.

The same goes for the scenes where Harold drives the street car. Bereft of its track,  the trolley skids along dangerously with almost no traction whatsoever, jack-kniving along cobblestone streets like some antiquated juggernaut, threatening to crush anything in its path. There are a few medium close-up process shots of Harold driving the street car that were filmed in a studio with rear projection street footage, but they are very few, amounting to only a few seconds in total, and they are easy to identify. Most of the trolley car chase footage was staged more or less as it appears on the screen. It definitely speaks to Lloyd's immense popularity that he was allowed to carry out such a fool stunt, and it's amazing no one was hurt. As in many of Lloyd's big stunt sequences, although precautions were taken, the dangers were very real. At the end of the chase, when the streetcar crashes into a pole, that was not scripted. It was a real life accident, but was a great shot, so they kept it in the film and rewrote the scene around it.

Start to finish, Speedy is Harold Lloyd at his very finest. Unlike some of his earlier films which seem to drag a little in between the gags and stunts, Speedy is the polished, well-balanced product of a master of the craft. Unfortunately, his sound-era films would never again reach this level of perfection, but considering the quality of his body of work from the 20's, that's hardly a disappointment.

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