Girl Shy

US (1924) Dirs. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor

Who would have thought that knowing nothing about women would actually you win the heart of one? Only in movies eh? Well, this was the 1920’s when times were a little chaster and restrained when it comes to depicting romance on screen, and this is a Harold Lloyd comedy so it’s just best to go with the flow.

Our hapless hero is good hearted Harold Meadows (Lloyd), an apprentice tailor working with his uncle (Richard Daniels) in the backwater town of Little Bend, with a slight touch of gynophobia that makes him stutter when around women. Despite this, Harold has written a book on how to woo the ladies based on his “experiences” with them – exaggerated fantasies occurring mostly in his head.

Whilst taking the train to Los Angeles to submit his manuscript to a publisher, Harold meets rich girl Mary Buckingham (Jobyna Ralston), helping her smuggle her dog onboard. Harold is at ease with Mary and his stutter subsides, but when Harold’s book is rejected, he distances himself from Mary, sending her into the arms of bigamist Ronald DeVore (Carlton Griffin). Can Harold stop the wedding in time?

Girl Shy was Lloyd’s first film following his split from producer Hal Roach, so a lot was riding on this as it marked the debut production from Lloyd’s own company. This is an easily recognisable Lloyd film but the emphasis is on the characters and developing the story over the slapstick humour. Not that Lloyd would completely excise the comedy from his films, just the gag-a-minute formula we saw under Roach.

In that respect the humour in a lot of places reveals more shades of subtlety and pathos which was always Lloyd’s speciality, but the number of prat falls he takes has been reduced a little, which were saved for the final twenty minutes in which an inventive, rip roaring, stunt filled race through LA involving various different methods of transport, including motorcycles, horses, cars and a rogue tram.  

This isn’t just a non-stop thrill ride but a cleverly constructed and laid out piece of filmmaking that relies on precision camerawork as much as the physical adroitness and impeccable timing of Lloyd and his stunt double. To keep the rush of adrenaline up, the editing is tight and often very quick which was unusual in those days, but at the expense of missing any of the action. There are too many highlights to mention but the sequence with the unravelling fire hose is nail biting stuff.

A genuine case of saving the best until last it may be – and this segment has often been shown in isolation – this doesn’t mean the remainder of the film should be written off. As mentioned above, the story and the characters are more than functional conduits to elicit laughs and gasps, creating an empathy and emotional investment for the audience rare in comedy at that time.

Harold’s stutter could have been subject to broad jokes made at his expense but instead it serves an endearing obstacle for him to overcome in winning the girl, hindering him in the aforementioned race against time when trying to communicate with people. The other side of the coin is how in a relaxed environment with Mary the stutter is gone, expressing the idea of her being Harold’s perfect match which will soon be jeopardised.

But isn’t Mary already paired up with DeVore? Actually no, but that hasn’t stopped him from proposing seven times, his existing marriage not revealed to the audience until later on. The least developed of the three main characters personality wise, DeVore is the archetypal silent movie villain – larger than the hero, shifty expression, small twirly moustache and utterly selfish.  

Then there is Harold’s fated book The Art Of Making Love – when “making love” meant something far more innocent. The idea of someone who can’t even talk to women writing an instructional guide for other men is ripe for deeper comic exploration; in a modern film it would have been a central focus, here we get only a few scenes but they are vital enough in handling this discrepancy with the same derision it would receive today.

It is a sign of the times when Harold rejects Mary – his rationale is that it would be unfair for her to be enthused about a failed author – she immediately agrees to marry DeVore. His mother, upon hearing the news, exclaims “Mary must be happy!” then we cut to the heartbroken Mary bawling her eyes out. Heaven forefend that a young woman would wait a little longer to find her Mr. Right and not marry because society says she should.

Such contrivances are rife in silent cinema and in truth, they still exist today in different forms, so we accept them as a catalyst for dopey Harold to man up and win his girl back, with no real harm done. Without spoiling anything it is fair to suggest the makers of The Graduate must have been a fan of Girl Shy as one scene is a definite influence on a key moment from the 60’s classic.

What did upset some preview audiences in 1924 however, were the fantasy segments of Harold and the women, in particular with the “vamp” where he exercises disinterest towards her advances. This upset some women and the scenes were cut, restored in this version. Of course he only had to be himself with Mary to win her over but it seems the irony of these scenes was lost on the dissenters.

As with many of Lloyd’s films the overwhelming charm draws the viewer in whilst the gentle humour and elaborate, death defying stunts sequences holds our attention. Girl Shy is no exception, delivering all this and a personable, thankfully twee free romance story to boot, proving Lloyd was capable of succeeding without Hal Roach.

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