Speedy (Cert 12)
1 Disc (Distributor: Criterion Collection) Running Time: 86 minutes approx.
Of the hallowed triumvirate of silent film comedy kings, Harold Lloyd was the one I discovered first, via a TV series called “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy”. However, unlike his venerated contemporaries, Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd’s films criminally are not as readily available on this side of the pond.
Praise be then for the Criterion Collection for including Lloyd’s last silent film as one of their debut releases here in Old Blighty. Made in 1928 and directed by Ted Wilde, Speedy is both an event filled comedy and a love letter to New York, serving as a historical document of how this famous city looked and amused itself in the 1920’s.
The central story bookends the film – Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) runs the last horse drawn streetcar in the Big Apple and refuses to sell his route to a railway development company. Pop’s granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy) is dating Harold “Speedy” Swift (Lloyd), who vows to help keep the route running.
In the meantime, we take a trip to Coney Island before Speedy demonstrates the trouble that befalls him every time he tries to hold down a job. It is rather ironic that Keaton dropped a football scene from his film College for fear of copying Lloyd, yet when we meet Speedy, he’s working as a soda jerk, doing the same gags Keaton did in College!
Despite the dynamic visual boost it gives the film, the Coney Island segment feels like it might have originally been planned for a short, since the main plot is forgotten for a whole twenty minutes while we are entertained by an endless stream of slapstick chaos.
Lloyd is not the first filmmaker to exploit the comic potential of Coney Island – Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle did it a decade earlier – but it had hitherto been presented in such a gloriously exhilarating manner. The filming of one of the rides is way ahead of its time in how it captures the undulating movements of a gravity-defying cabin, which nowadays would be done with green screen and CGI.
Rather controversially, in a scene featuring a distorted mirror Lloyd creates a cinematic first – he can be seen giving the middle finger! Who would have though the archetypal Mr Amiable would be the one to break this taboo?
While chock full of great visual gags and slapstick hubris, it is possible the purpose of the Coney Island trip is to juxtapose the modernity of this fairground city against the archaic, redundant mode of transport Speedy is trying to save. This is reflected in the presentation of each – the former resplendent with adventurous camerawork and visual effects, the latter free from excess, aside from some primitive chroma key work.
Back in New York and Speedy gets a job as a taxi driver before he takes over Pop’s route which one again finds our hapless hero a victim of circumstance at every turn. It is this approach to his comedy where Lloyd differs from his peers – Chaplin would often cause trouble while Keaton would be reacting to a problem; Lloyd would be caught up in someone else issues.
This section of the film is most famous for the cameo by baseball legend Babe Ruth, perhaps one of the earliest cinematic celebrity cameos and to be fair, Babe does a good job as Speedy’s only satisfied customer of the day. Credit where it is due, the way the film morphs from the comic frippery of this segment back into the main story is rather clever.
Silent comedy is largely built around physical humour and with the advent of feature length films, the set pieces needed to be bigger and bolder. Lloyd took on this challenge just like Keaton and Chaplin did, and Speedy boasts some supreme thrills and spills, both vehicular and at the expense of the human body.
The ill-fated taxi run features plenty of madcap zooming about the streets of New York, while a threat made against Pop’s streetcar sees the local Civil War veterans suit up one more time to fend off the bad guys. Predating Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York by some seventy plus years, Lloyd and a swarm of old timers duke it out against the criminals in an absolute spectacle of a punch up.
For the climax we have another staple of silent cinema – the chase sequence! The streetcar is stolen to prevent it making it daily rounds and Speedy has to get it on the tracks before ten o-clock or Pop’s will lose it all. With help from a stray dog, a dummy of a police officer and some quick thinking, Speedy takes us on another whistle stop tour of the Big Apple in this amazing race against time.
It is remarkable how some filmmakers produce outings than run for hours an nothing happens yet Lloyd and long time collaborator Ted Wilde cram so much into the 86 minutes without it ever feeling overloaded or suffering from a surfeit of material. Some might accuse the Coney Island scenes of being extraneous but they serve a purpose in showing Speedy’s mettle as well as establishing his relationship with Jane.
Lloyd’s comedy was in essence far gentler in tone than Keaton and Chaplin’s yet was just as adventurous in terms of conceptual sight gags or hair-raising stunts. The famous clock hanging sequence from 1923’s Safety Last will forever be Lloyd’s calling card but he continued exploring new stunt ideas be they overt slapstick or subtle yet daring visual escapades. This film is a good example of Lloyd employing the latter to full effect without sacrificing any of the innate natural charm his films possess.
If Harold Lloyd is an unfamiliar name to you then this superb 4K restoration of Speedy is the perfect way to get acquainted with one of cinema’s often overlooked geniuses, along with the 1919 debut of his “glasses” character (after five years of being a Chaplin clone) included in the extras.
Uncompressed Stereo Musical Score By Carl Davis
Audio Commentary By Bruce Goldstein And Scott McGee
In The Footsteps Of “Speedy”
Narrated Stills: Deleted Scenes
Harold Lloyd’s Home Movies
Bumping Into Broadway (restored 1919 Short)
Essay By Film Critic Phillip Lopate
Rating – **** ½
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