Posted by Susan Doll on May 12, 2014
While Chaplin and Keaton remain the giants of silent comedy to modern-day movie lovers, Harold Lloyd was the most popular film comedian and the biggest box-office draw during the 1920s. His movies out-grossed Keaton’s comedies, and after Chaplin began to fret over his features, Lloyd out-produced the Little Tramp. In 1927, Lloyd was the only performer on Variety’s list of the top 20 wealthiest people in show business (see An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture by Richard Koszarski.) Having seen many of his feature films, including Safety Last, Speedy, Girl Shy, and The Freshman, I can understand his appeal. Youthful, optimistic, and persevering, Lloyd’s so-called “glass” or “glasses” character suited a decade in which Americans sought to better themselves economically, acquire consumer goods, and partake of the American Dream. Lloyd’s comic persona, who was always called Harold in his films, was not disenfranchised like Chaplin’s Little Tramp nor a misfit like Keaton’s Great Stone Face. Instead, he was akin to the hapless boy next door who worked hard to get ahead and win the hand of the girl. Even his costume was “normal” in that it was purchased off the rack and not an exaggerated ensemble from the costume department of Hal Roach’s studio.
Like all of the great silent comedians, Lloyd was a genius at the gags and stunts that make up physical humor. Few viewers could resist his so-called “thrill stunts,” which were large-scale gags enhanced by an element of daring or danger. Appropriately, the image that has come to represent the entire era of silent comedy is the shot in Safety Last in which Lloyd dangles from a clock face on a building in downtown Los Angeles. In interviews about his work, the comedian liked to pontificate on the mechanics of gag construction. He claimed to have pioneered certain types of audience research in which he charted gags and plotted viewers’ laughs, chuckles, and titters on graphs. He then recut and re-shaped his films based on this data, with the small gags and large-scale stunts organized into a well-timed whole.
However, one of my favorite Lloyd movies does not make use of his usual comic persona, though it does include an array of Lloyd-style gags and stunts. Why Worry? airs at 8:00 PM this Thursday as part of TCM’s evening with “Hypochondriacs,” a selection of movies featuring characters who are overly neurotic about health issues. The one-evening series includes several comedies that are personal favorites: Why Worry?, Send Me No Flowers, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Up in Arms. I wonder what that says about me!
I recently caught Why Worry? at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it was accompanied by a live orchestra—the best way to see a silent movie. It was introduced by Leonard Maltin and Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd Hayes, who provided context to explain why the comedian may have wanted to tweak his comic persona. Ms. Hayes speculated that following the huge success of Safety Last, which features the epitome of her grandfather’s familiar image, he wanted to give his fans something different. Lloyd was also in the process of ending his successful relationship with producer Hal Roach. With Why Worry?, he was ramping up to become his own producer. The film also marks the end of his professional relationship with frequent costar Mildred Davis, who had appeared with Lloyd 14 times. The two had fallen in love, and Lloyd asked Davis to marry him. She gave up her career to become his leading lady in their personal lives. Jobyna Ralston, who had a successful career in the silent era, costarred opposite him in Why Worry?.
Instead of his usual hard-working boy next door, Lloyd stars as spoiled millionaire Harold Van Pelham, who is such a hypochondriac that he travels with a private nurse, a wheelchair, and a hospital gurney. To cure his latest malady, Harold takes a trip to the South American island of Paradiso, which is in the throes of upheaval and revolution. However, Harold is oblivious to the political situation because he is so self-absorbed. When he first arrives, he misinterprets the island’s mayhem as part of Paradiso’s colorful customs and lifestyle. He strolls down the main street looking for his hotel just as a bandito throws a man out a window onto a bench: He smiles because he assumes the unconscious man is taking a restful siesta. Once in Paradiso, the narrative becomes a series of loosely structured events that serve as set-ups for Lloyd’s physical comedy. Harold is tossed in jail, escapes, finds himself in the middle of a revolution, squares off against a corrupt American, and rescues his nurse. During the course of events, Harold becomes less self-involved and loses his hypochondria.
Lloyd’s character in Why Worry? is not the only difference from his previous movies. The pace of the film is extremely fast, with one gag directly following or building on the previous. The pace accelerates as the revolution heats up, and Harold races down streets, scales buildings, jumps from great heights, and tussles with revolutionaries and banditos in rapid succession. In another new development, Harold acquires a sidekick in this movie. While in jail, he meets Colosso, a giant of a man described as “the wild hermit from the mountains.” He cures Colosso of a toothache, and the two become fast friends. Many stunts feature Lloyd physically interacting with Colosso: At one point, he even scales his body like a building. The character was played by Johan Aasen, a Minnesotan who was a towering eight-feet-nine-inches tall. Unbelievably, Aasen was the second giant hired for the film, according to Suzanne Lloyd Hayes. Former Ringling circus performer George Auger, who was just over eight-feet tall, was originally hired, but he died the day before his train trip to California. In a panic, assistants at Hal Roach’s studio scoured the country until they found a newspaper article about a shoemaker in Minnesota who had made a giant pair of shoes for Aasen.
Silent comedies often lampoon, satirize, or allude to news events of the day, which tend to go over the heads of contemporary viewers. Whenever I show Buster Keaton’s 1922 short Cops (1920) to my students, I take great delight in explaining the joke behind the scene in which Keaton takes his lazy, slow-moving horse into a doctor’s office labeled “Dr. Smith Goat-Gland Specialist.” When the nag emerges, he is kicking his heels and feeling his oats. The joke was in reference to John Brinkley, a charlatan who claimed to be a doctor with a cure for erectile dysfunction. His cure involved implanting goat testicles into the scrotums of men, a procedure that cost about $750. Less you think that men will try anything to maintain their virility, he also performed the operation on a few willing women. He transplanted goat testicles into women’s abdomens near their ovaries. Through a massive advertising campaign and the opening of a clinic in Chicago, his name was widely known during the 1920s. Cops also includes a scene in which a scruffy man in an ethnic-looking costume throws a bomb onto the horse-drawn cart that Keaton is driving. The gag refers to the country’s fear of Italian anarchists, who had organized terrorist cells in the U.S. During the 1920s, they had stirred up a bit of trouble in Boston and New York. As crazy references go, however, the story of “Dr.” Brinkley trumps the Italian anarchists.
In Why Worry?, the island of Paradiso is obviously modeled after Mexico—from the siestas to the sombreros worn by the locals. Mexico had just experienced a decade of revolutions and related turmoil, including the assassinations of Emiliano Zapata Salazar in 1919, President Carranza in 1920, and Pancho Villa in 1923, the year Why Worry? was released. In the film, the revolutionaries are banditos corralled by American Jim Blake so he can destabilize the country to his advantage. He is notified by an American bank to stop his activities, or they will take action against him. The references to American involvement on both a personal and corporate level are merely plot devices, but it does suggest that U.S. manipulation of politics on foreign soils is nothing new. The idea that Harold Van Pelham’s hypochondria was all in his mind and therefore curable by a change in mental attitude may have been a nod to the work of famed pharmacist and psychotherapist Dr. Emile Coue. Coue believed that physical health and emotional problems could be overcome through determination and mental adjustments, and his ideas were popularized during the 1920s. By visualizing success and reciting mantras such as “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” Coue’s patients could improve their physical and emotional health. I found a couple of sources that claimed Lloyd was a believer in Coue’s ideas, often reciting a version of this phrase before his stunts.
Currently my favorite Harold Lloyd movie, Why Worry? was one of the best discoveries at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival. Catch it this Thursday on TCM; you won’t be disappointed.
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