Deep Dives

Harold Lloyd Has Something to Say: The Silent Master’s Funniest Talkie

Harold Lloyd Has Something to Say: The Silent Master’s Funniest Talkie

The question that was asked of the great actors and actresses of silent film with the coming of sound was simple: Could they speak? Could they adapt the styles they had developed to the demands of dialogue and be as convincing to audiences who could hear them as they had been when they were only seen? But the silent movie comedians had a different and perhaps greater problem. They were original, singular creatures, born and raised in silence. They flew through worlds of their own making, unbound by the laws of commonality that affected the rest of us. Sound could only ground them in a reality they neither needed nor wanted. The question that beset the clowns went beyond “Could they speak?” to become “Why talk at all?” Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp expressed his emotions with every swerve of his balletically agile body. The stoical Buster Keaton could say more with a slight shift of his eyes than most actors could with a soliloquy. And man-child Harry Langdon? He was clearly preverbal.

Of the great silent comedians, Harold Lloyd would seem to have been in the best position for the shift to sound. He had created a screen character as much like the average man as possible. No outsize costume or greasepaint makeup for him—just a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and the occasional straw hat. His comedy came from taking this man who might pass us on the street and walking him one plausible step at a time into a world of outrageous misfortune. No major rethinking should have been needed to let this fellow talk. And his lightly inflected voice seemed just right to sustain the illusion of youthfulness he had always played (he was thirty-six at the time of his first talkie).

But Lloyd’s transition to sound would be rockier than anyone might have anticipated. He had already shot what he meant to be his last silent film when he decided to reshoot enough to make it his first talkie. Released in 1929, Welcome Danger was the greatest commercial hit of his career. Audiences clearly wanted to hear Harold talk. But the film itself was terrible, arguably the worst of his prime (well, you might argue—I’d say case closed). It has no discernable structure or story, a paucity of first-class gags, and Lloyd had his beloved glasses character behave in ways that made him thoroughly unlikable, even obnoxious (why?!). It’s hard to reconcile the Harold Lloyd of Welcome Danger with the man who, a year earlier, had delivered the dazzling Speedy. And his second sound film, Feet First (1930), was only slightly better, despite a new building-hanging thrill sequence meant to remind audiences of how much they had loved his classic Safety Last! (1923). And there was a shocking drop-off at the box office.

But Harold Lloyd, the artist, shared with his on-screen persona a determination to succeed, against all odds. And he was going to make certain that his third sound film, Movie Crazy, would be his best.

“Lloyd’s completely effective use of sound would make Movie Crazy seem fresh and contemporary while still feeling warmly familiar to his longtime fans.”

To give the film structure, he turned to a premise that had worked for him in several of his silent classics, notably Safety Last! and The Freshman. Again, he would tell the tale of a young man leaving home to pursue his chosen profession. Here, he would go to Hollywood to be a movie star. As in his previous films, he would fail spectacularly before persistence and luck would bring his improbable dream to reality, with love thrown in as a bonus. But this time, his completely effective use of sound would make Movie Crazy seem fresh and contemporary while still feeling warmly familiar to his longtime fans. 

Lloyd hired top gagman Clyde Bruckman, who had previously worked with Lloyd and Buster Keaton on many of their greatest films, to direct. Unfortunately, Bruckman was an alcoholic and simply not up to the demands of the job. Lloyd wound up directing the bulk of the film himself while letting Bruckman retain the credit as a favor. As costar Constance Cummings would later relate, Lloyd would prepare the scene the way he wanted it and then the “director” would make sure Lloyd’s vision was accomplished. So it’s likely fair to credit Lloyd with the fluid and imaginative camera work used to take in the constant motion of life at the studio in which Harold seeks his fortune. Especially memorable is a crane shot late in the film that starts by showing all the equipment and activity surrounding the stage where a scene is to be shot and then moves down and forward until we are completely inside the scene itself.

The comedy sequences in Movie Crazy are Lloyd’s strongest since Speedy. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Harold stumbles into a film being made and is asked to be an extra—a simple task that he fumbles in gag after gag. Later, given a screen test, he blows that too, and we see this not as it happens but in the rushes shown to the increasingly exasperated studio execs. Each “take” becomes a discrete gag, aided toward laughter by how the picture and sound speed up as the clips run out.

The highlight of the film sees Lloyd again turning toward the past for inspiration. Perhaps the most memorable sequence of The Freshman finds Harold at a dance wearing a suit that the tailor has only had time to baste. The comedy comes from Harold’s desperate attempts to keep the pieces of his suit attached to his body. At a dance in Movie Crazy, Harold accidentally switches his coat with a magician’s (It’s comedy. Just roll with it). The laughs build as Harold keeps pulling unexpected surprises, some quite alive, from the coat. Whereas in Feet First the addition of sound damages the thrill sequence (street noises and Harold’s cries for help making it too realistic for comfort), here sound helps. There is little dialogue, but dance music fills out the soundtrack, as do the increasingly vocal reactions of the other guests. In essence, Lloyd has created a silent comedy routine that feels just as natural with sound. It’s one of his greatest sequences. (It certainly stuck with Bruckman, who lifted and reused it in two separate films, one a Three Stooges short, leading Lloyd to sue him. Lloyd ultimately won, albeit for far less monetary damages than he had asked.)

But Lloyd knew he needed something more than great gag sequences to make his best sound feature. He needed something to say beyond the simple chatter he used in the earlier talkies, something audiences might actually care to listen to. So he moved beyond his usual gag writers to add two intriguing names to the credits.

“It’s safe to assume that some combination of Vincent Lawrence and Agnes Christine Johnson was responsible for the element of Movie Crazy that still feels fresh to audiences today.”

Agnes Christine Johnson was one of the first wave of significant women screenwriters to work in silent films. While not as famous as Frances Marion or Anita Loos, she still had a major impact, with credits that included the classic Daddy Long-Legs (1919) for Mary Pickford, and Marion Davies’s two greatest films, The Patsy and Show People (both 1928). She would continue writing successful films through the forties, including multiple Andy Hardy pictures. She is given a story credit on Movie Crazy.

But sole credit for screenplay and dialogue goes to Vincent Lawrence. A successful Broadway playwright in the twenties, whom critic George Jean Nathan called “the greatest light comedy writer in the United States,” he was exactly the kind of writer Hollywood was looking for when talkies arrived. He would become a major figure there, creating a wide variety of screenplays, from DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934) to the Carole Lombard comedy Hands Across the Table (1935). (Lawrence was a good friend of novelist James M. Cain; it was he who, after Cain’s publisher rejected the title Bar-B-Que for his first novel, suggested an alternate—The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

It’s safe to assume that some combination of Lawrence and Johnson was responsible for the element of Movie Crazy that still feels fresh to audiences today. In Lloyd’s previous films, as with most of his comedy contemporaries, “the girl” primarily existed to give the hero a goal to strive for and to validate the character by falling in love with him. As appealing as she might be, she could hardly be called dimensional. But “the girl” in Movie Crazy is no girl but a woman, and one with distinct agency of her own.

That woman is played by the aforementioned Constance Cummings. A gifted actress of stage and film, Cummings was at the start of a long career that would bring her great acclaim and multiple awards, including a 1979 Tony for her performance in Arthur Kopit’s Wings.

As blond film actress Mary Sears, Cummings is at first appalled and then attracted to Harold. But when she realizes that he can’t recognize her when she’s dressed as the dark-haired character she’s currently playing at the studio, she decides to teaseor, more accurately, tormentHarold by trying to lure him to her when in costume and then accusing him of two-timing her when she is in street clothes. Watching this again, I found myself thinking of how con artist Barbara Stanwyck tortures mild-mannered snake expert Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941). I’m not suggesting a direct connection, but Sturges was enough of a Lloyd fan to write and direct him in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), and I can easily imagine Lloyd saying Sturges lines like “You’re certainly a funny girl for anybody to meet who’s just been up the Amazon for a year.”

Near the film’s conclusion, when Mary unmasks, she gives Harold almost the exact same speech Jobyna Ralston gave him in The Freshman, advising him to “be himself.” But Harold has been himself in Movie Crazy! It was Mary who literally wasn’t! Mary’s whimsical actions seem to be a direct expression of her own personality. One might even wonder if Harold should stay with her or run for the hills! However you view her, Mary is clearly driving the action in her sections of Movie Crazy. This compelling relationship is unique among Lloyd’s films and I can think of nothing like it in the work of his comedy peers.

In blending these vivid modern dialogue scenes with classic visual comedy, Harold Lloyd had finally made a sound film the equal of his best silents. The happy ending of Movie Crazy finds Harold being offered a contract as the studio’s new comedy star. The movie had a happy ending in life as well, becoming a critical and commercial hit. In years to come, the variability of Lloyd’s sound work and the consistent joys of his classic silents would make Movie Crazy something of a forgotten film. But at that moment, in 1932, it was a triumph. The young man with the glasses had made it across the goal line one more time.

Movie Crazy is available on the Criterion Channel.

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