It’s not an easy time to find a laugh at the movie theaters. As the majors pour more and more resources into fewer and fewer blockbuster films, there’s not as much room for the lower yield, but also lower risk, mid-budget comedy, and not as many stars who can guarantee their success.
That’s not to say comedy’s been abandoned so much as absorbed. The big-ticket comedies of the past few years — your Jumanjis, your Jungle Cruises, pretty much everything else Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson appears in — have relied as much on action-movie formulas and spectacles and brand-name recognition as laffs. Even the Marvel juggernaut is at its best producing action-packed sitcom episodes. As for just plain comedy-comedy, it’s mostly been relegated straight to streaming — depending on how unkind you feel like being, either a new medium separated from theatrical film by an increasingly thin line, the modern equivalent of TV movies, or the modern equivalent of the direct-to-video dumping grounds.
I miss big dumb comedy-comedies as much as anyone, but in a better world, this new landscape would offer as much possibility as it shut out. The action comedy is as old as the movies themselves — you could argue it’s practically synonymous with slapstick, at least any slapstick at a larger scale than three mopes smacking each other. And the old masters knew it brought out the best of both genres. Any action sequence that pushes the possibilities of the medium far enough is going to get laughs of disbelief, after all. And freed from the already loose reality of “straight” action movies, the action comedy can take action setpieces to their full potential.
All the great comedians of the silent era understood this — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and as much as either of them, Harold Lloyd. I don’t know if I can quite back up my previous assertion that that last is the best of them. I’d based that on a count of my 5/5 ratings on Letterboxd, but I’ve since discovered three more equally flawless films from Keaton, and Chaplin’s quality-over-quantity approach was never going to serve him well in a numbers game. I’ll say this — Keaton may have pulled off more iconic stunts, but Lloyd still owns the single most recognizable stunt of the silent era with his clock-dangling act from Saferty Last! And either way, Lloyd’s final silent film, Speedy embodies all the possibilities of the form in a way only a handful of other movies ever could.
Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift — no relation to the running joke in his other masterpiece, The Freshman, where he introduces himself, “Step right up and call me Speedy!” On the other hand, Harold Swift has every relation to Harold Lloyd. Like many of his peers, including Laurel and Hardy, who always went by “Stan and Ollie” no matter who they played, Lloyd almost always “played himself” with a slight change of name. I’m not using those scare quotes lightly, of course. His straw boater and owl-eye glasses were just as much a persona as Chaplin’s battered derby and tiny mustache. Lloyd even inspired Clark Kent with his habit of avoiding his fans simply by taking the glasses off, so take that everyone who says Superman’s disguise is unrealistic.
Whatever its hero’s nickname may be, Speedy could just as easily be a description of the movie itself, proof against the endless complaints that old movies are too slow if there ever was any. The first title card lets us know that Speedy takes place in “New York, where everybody is in such a hurry that they take Saturday’s bath on Friday so they can do Monday’s wash on Sunday.” The story may move to an enclave that’s ignored the city’s last fifty-odd years of development, home of the New York’s last horse-drawn trolley, but that title card still sets the pace for the rest of the movie.
That trolley, property of Speedy’s prospective grandfather-in-law Pop Dillon, eventually becomes the fulcrum of the plot when a railroad company gets increasingly violent in their attempts to force Pops out. But for all Speedy’s restless pace, it lets its plot develop slowly. We see the railroad man appear in Pop’s shabby apartment to make an offer early on. But from there Speedy is more interested in stringing together gags based on the various jobs its hero tries and fails to hold down through a combination of his baseball obsession and plain bad luck.
Best of all is the sequence where Speedy tries his luck as a cabbie and rockets two detectives (who, of course, don’t pay and are never around to pull rank on the traffic cops who keep ticketing him) through the free-for-all of New York traffic at the dawn of the automobile age. And then his idol Babe Ruth asks for a ride to Yankee Stadium, leading to an even more spectacular setpiece of Lloyd obliviously weaving through one near miss after another. If Amelie hated old movies where drivers never watch the road, she’d loathe this one, where Speedy is so starstruck he spends the whole time with his eyes glued to the backseat and never sees how many times he nearly dies in a fireball, no matter how many times the Bambino — a surprisingly talented straight man, at least in intertitles — snarks at him about it. If you’re not laughing your ass off at this scene, it might be because you’re too busy picking your jaw up off the floor.
This should give you an idea of how fascinating Speedy is as a document of New York (and sometimes LA) in the Roaring ‘20s. There’s even a cameo from Lou Gehrig just because he happened to be hanging around Yankee Stadium during filming. It’s no wonder it’s one of my history-teacher aunt’s favorites, but no other scene has the bug-in-amber beauty of the sequence where Speedy takes his fiancee Jane to Coney Island. Covered in thousands of glittering lights, turn-of-the-century Coney Island always struck me as something like a lost fairy-tale kingdom, and Speedy did more than anything to solidify that impression. The sequence is practically a tour, showcasing icons of the park like the Witching Waves, the sparking Luna Park gates, and the spinning Insanitarium (which everyone gets knocked off by a crab that snuck into a Speedy’s pocket).
Fortunately, the sequence is more than just a commercial for Coney Island — it’s as full of inspired gags as anything else in Speedy. The intertitles make much of Speedy buying a new suit just for the date even though he’d just lost his job, and predictably he has an uphill battle trying to keep it clean. Trying to duck a car driving through a puddle, he backs into a fence without seeing the “wet paint” sign. And just to pile on the gags, he panics when he sees he’s covered in spots that turn out to be the shadow cast from a woman’s umbrella before he finds out he’ll be stuck in prison stripes the rest of the day. He makes the discovery in a funhouse mirror and responds by flipping off his own reflection — pre-Code, everybody! They also meet an adorable dog, and fortunately, it follows them home, because if you’ve got an adorable dog in your movie, you don’t let it go to waste.
As you may have guessed, this isn’t just an action comedy, it’s a romantic comedy as well, and Lloyd and director Ted White balance all three genres expertly, mixing slapstick and sentiment as well as Chaplin ever did. Speedy and Jane leave loaded down with prizes but all out of bus fare. Fortunately, Speedy’s friend from his old job at the soda fountain also drives a moving van, and he offers them a ride home. It’s already loaded up with almost everything the young couple need to play house for a disarmingly sweet fantasy of domestic bliss. Lloyd still hasn’t forgotten he’s got to be funny above all else though, especially with one hilarious shot where he imagines the crib they won at the fair occupied by two little babies wearing his oversized glasses.
Speedy’s shagginess allows the plot to coalesce almost organically. When Speedy hides from the cops at a phone booth in Yankee Stadium, he overhears the railroad boss in the booth next to him revealing that Pops will lose the trolley if he fails to run it every 24 hours and organizing a gang of toughs to make a scene and steal it in the chaos. Speedy mobilizes the neighborhood for another spectacular action setpiece, an all-out street-fight pitting thugs against oldsters wielding horseshoes, Gay ‘90s football gear, and hot irons. Speedy hammers a nail into one alterkocker’s wooden leg; another happily sits next to one of the gangsters he’s KOed and keeps splashing water on his face so he can KO him again.
And if you thought that was the climax, Lloyd knows too far is never far enough. The next night, the railroad steals the car from its garage. Speedy finds it with some help from the dog (see, this is why you don’t waste an adorable dog) leading to another spectacular street chase. If some of the rear-projection effects are dodgy, that only makes the rest of the movie more impressive — if that’s how bad it looks when Lloyd tries to fake it, that means every other death-defying stunt in Speedy is real. And I do mean death-defying — the scene where the trolley crashes into a bridge wasn’t scripted, but Lloyd makes the most of it. You have a crash that good, you leave it in your movie, I don’t care how traumatic it may have been. He even writes around it, adding a scene of Speedy replacing the trolley’s broken wheel with a manhole cover.
I used to think this was the best Lloyd, and honestly, chase sequences in general, could ever hope to achieve. Then I saw Girl Shy. The movie as a whole is just short of a Speedy-level masterpiece: Lloyd pushes at the edge of his likability by playing a proto-incel type (Harold Meadows this time) who’s too scared to talk to women but still writes a book of advice for lovers in which he fantasizes about violently humiliating them. Over on the Criterion Channel, David Bordwell says these scenes were meant to be as repellent in 1924 as they seem to us now, but I can see it going either way.
But it’s still impossible to hate Lloyd as he pursues his first true love with a woman whose parents insist on marrying her off to a wealthier man. Then Harold discovers his rival is still married to another woman and races off to stop the wedding. In the process, he commandeers a train, several horses, something like a half dozen cars, including one from a bootlegger, which gets the police after him. And then he takes their car. When I heard Bordwell say the scene was twenty minutes long, I couldn’t believe it until I went back and counted, and yes, Lloyd really did keep that scene going that long without ever losing momentum. It’s hard not to imagine he inspired Keaton to one-up for his own fifteen-minute wedding chase in the more celebrated Seven Chances the next year. I’m not about to tell you which is better — what should I do next, ask a parent to choose their favorite child? The climaxes of Girl Shy and Seven Chances are two of the greatest feats of action, comedy, and action comedy ever put onscreen.
Whichever of the silent clowns you pull for, their collective achievement has never been surpassed. Who needs special effects when you’ve got some of the most talented men on earth risking every indignity and injury imaginable for your entertainment?