The debate over the greatest silent comedian shows no sign of going away any time soon, but it’s always been too two-sided to tell the whole story. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have been duking it out for the title for the past century and more, but have you considered taking a third option?
That’s obviously a bolder claim than I should really be making, but based just on my Letterboxd diary, I have to give Harold Lloyd the edge for making two movies I gave 5/5 stars (The Freshman and Speedy) to Chaplin and Keaton’s one apiece. There’s no accounting for taste of course, but I’ll say this much for Lloyd: He gives you the best of both worlds. He’s just as charming as Chaplin, and just about as athletic Keaton, to the extent that’s even possible.
That only got him so far, though. Chaplin was the only one of the three to survive into the sound era, mostly by pretending the change never happened (in fact, he didn’t just survive, he thrived — all three of his canonical classics were post-talkie, even if The great Dictator is the only true talkie of the bunch).
Feet First was Lloyd’s second sound comedy, and he takes to the medium less like a duck to water and more like a fish to the Sahara Desert. He scaled back his output from a film a year to just one every other year afterwards, and he retired entirely before the decade was done.
Feet First turned a decent profit, but Lloyd’s disappointment with the returns may have played a role. Or maybe that disappointment was more on the creative level. This story of a shoe salesman’s pursuit of a woman he believes is his boss’s daughter plays like a Harold Lloyd film at half speed. Scratch that, a quarter speed, because full speed for anyone else would be slow for Lloyd. It’s still a good long ways from outright bad, but it can’t help looking that way in comparison.
Don’t look for Speedy’s breathtaking handheld-camera chases through the streets of New York here. Feet First looks more like a filmed play than a true movie. Director Clyde Bruckman films everything from a few set angles, most of them just two actors facing each other in profile way away from the camera so everything from head to toe is visible, as stiff as an Egyptian painting.
And these shots go on excruciatingly long. This isn’t just a talking movie, it’s packed wall to wall with talk. And every time it stops, you see why. In the absence of a musical score, every dialogue-free scene plays out in awkward, eerie silence, broken only by the maddening pop and hiss of the primitive film. As much as anything in the filmmaking, the absence of the music that propels Lloyd’s silent films sucks all the life out of Feet First. It throws off the whole rhythm of the whole thing — many shots and whole sequences end before they have time to register, and others feel like they go on long after they’re over when the difference is really a matter of seconds.
If I had gotten to this earlier in my watch-through of potential Year of the Month topics, I might just take all these flaws as occupational hazards of early sound movies. The standard line in film history textbooks is the addition of sound locked the camera in place because of all the bulky sound-recording and sound-deadening equipment, undoing decades of filmmaking progress. But contemporary movies like All Quiet on the Western Front, The Big Trail, and The Blue Angel all prove that truism isn’t true. They’re not quite as sophisticated as some other movies from earlier or later, but they all show sound filmmakers pulling out all the tricks of the trade that, for the most part, Bruckman stubbornly leaves in the box — close-ups, rapid-fire editing, and some truly spectacular tracking shots.
I’m more inclined to blame this on Bruckman’s inexperience. As detailed in Matthew Dessem’s essential profile on our late, lamented forebear, The Dissolve, Bruckman was a veteran gag writer, but he’d only been directing for three years when Feet First premiered. His credit on Keaton’s masterpiece The General might seem like some pretty good pedigree, but Dessem successfully argues Keaton only put his name on there as a favor. I can’t even blame him. Poor bastard was just learning how to make movies when the universe sprung a whole new kind of filmmaking on him.
For all Bruckman and Lloyd struggle with sound filmmaking, I’ll give them this much credit. The funniest gag in Feet First would have been impossible in a silent film. After graduating from the “Personality Plus” Corp, Lloyd, gives a speech to roaring applause…which, as the camera pulls out, we realize he’s giving to an empty room at home while he plays the applause on his phonograph.
Also in the plus column is the central romance between Lloyd and Barbara Kent. Lloyd stands out among most romantic comedy makers for telling stories not about a man pursuing a woman but about two people who genuinely, mutually love each other, and Kent’s affection is palpable in every scene they share. The switch to sound can’t totally dampen Lloyd’s own charm either, and he has the benefit of sounding more or less just like you’d expect him to.
In the climax, Lloyd tries to make up for his shortcomings by playing the hits. In his most successful film, Safety Last, he climbs up a building to fill in for his friend who’s supposed to be doing a human fly act to promote a department store. In Feet First, a whole lot of contrivances lead to him doing it again. Lloyd chats with Kent and his boss as they depart on a cruise ship, and ends up still on there when it sails away. The crew hear there’s a stowaway onboard, so Lloyd hides in a mail bag, and somehow doesn’t notice when he’s picked up and flown all the way to New York. But we’re not done contriving yet. Then he rolls over onto a scaffolding that carries him all the way up the building.
But instead of recreating the success of Safety Last, Feet First scene just catalogs all the ways that movie works and this one doesn’t. Lloyd cut the scene down from thirty minutes to around fifteen after a disastrous test screening, and it still feels like an eternity. There’s no music and very little editing to liven it up.
And the addition of sound changes the whole mood. Llloyd’s uncomfortably naturalistic grunting, groaning, and screaming makes it way too real. This isn’t slapstick, this is real, uncomfortable pain.
And instead of Bill Strother as Lloyd’s likable sidekick, Feet First has the skin-crawling minstrelsy of Willie “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” Best. The inspiration for the character of the same name in Bamboozled, Sleep ‘n’ Eat got his stage name from studio hype that could have come straight out of the slavery days, claiming all he wanted for his work was three square meals and a warm place to sleep. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Lloyd immediately starts calling him “Charcoal” without even asking his name. (I was much happier when I thought he said “Jocko.”)
There’s still some good laughs to be had here, even if there are, if we’re generous, about half as many as the same sequence in Safety Last, with one especially inventive one where Lloyd’s hair literally stands on end, all the more effective for being one of the film’s few close-ups.
But it commits the worst crime a comedy can. Lloyd staggers and teeters on the edge, almost failing and almost falling and — he doesn’t fall. I literally shouted “Oh, come on!” at the screen when that happened.
More contrivances — Lloyd gets ahold of a letter that his boss needs in New York immediately, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s addressed to the exact building he’s been stuck on for the past eternity and a half. The movie ends with Lloyd and Kent finally together. The whole movie, Lloyd’s been trying to copy a trick he saw from a soda jerk, flipping up a spoon by hitting the one it’s resting on. He tries again with two shovels. It works, but the top shovel lands in a paint bucket, spraying paint all over them. And then — that’s it. Less a punchline than a weak slap with a wet towel. Feet First ends where it started: Awkward, poorly timed, trying to imitate past successes and failing flat on its face.
Feet First and many other, better Harold Lloyd movies are streaming on the Criterion Channel