Harold Lloyd's organic flow

These early slapstick two-reelers should be required text for all wannabe comic filmmakers

Harold Lloyd knew how comedy works.
  • Harold Lloyd knew how comedy works.

This week we feature a trio of Harold Lloyd shorts from 1920, all of which are available on YouTube.

Alfred J. Goulding and Hal Roach’s Haunted Spooks

Haunted Spooks

While Lloyd was posing for promotional stills midway through production, a prop bomb accidentally detonated, resulting in the loss of two fingers on Lloyd’s right hand. Fitted with a prosthetic glove, Lloyd saw to it that his disfigurement was a tightly-guarded secret. From a spectator’s viewpoint, there’s a great deal of perverse fascination involved in watching the short, the most ghoulish aspect of which is awaiting each cut to determine if the following shot was taken before or after the accident. As it turned out, the commixture was so successful that two of the doctors who treated the comedian became so involved in the narrative that they had to see the film a second time in order to spot their handiwork. In spite of the accident, Lloyd was still capable of doing extraordinary stunts. He was thrilled to be alive and working again, and it shows in every frame. This short marked a major turning point, with broad slapstick gradually taking a backseat to a kind of logic essential to make comedy work.

Hal Roach’s An Eastern Westerner

An Eastern Westerner

At some point in every comedian’s history, they’re asked to don chaps and a ten-gallon Stetson before saddling up atop a swayback horse. Jewish comedians in particular never seemed to make the leap needed to suspend disbelief. I’ll name them: The Marx Bros. (Go West), Jerry Lewis (with Dean Martin in Pardners), and The 3 Stooges (Punchy Cowpunchers) never felt at home on the range. Gentiles fared only slightly better (Laurel and Hardy in Way out West and Bob Hope in Son of Paleface), but with the rare exception of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (and is this really a western?) it seems that horseback and horseradish don’t mix. Harold Lloyd is about as Jewish as QVC, but the “glasses” character (particularly in his Jazz Age Playboy mode) on horseback earns him an honorary set of payos. Noah Young firing a gun as though it were a bullwhip defies description (and logic), but Lloyd’s gags do little to freshen (or flesh out) the genre’s built-in clichés.

Fred Newmeyer & Hal Roach’s Number, Please?

Number, Please?

Cowboys gaze out at the vast prairie, fisherman stare longingly into the briny deep, and bored playboys squander their fortunes all in the name of ‘the girl.’ It’s an austere (and fittingly absurd) prelude to a film set almost entirely at the Venice Beach Amusement Park. Part of the fascination with these daredevil comedies is their authentic location work. If the story called for an amusement park, rather than constructing a backlot replica, location scouts contracted with an existing one. These early slapstick two-reelers should be required text for all wannabe comic filmmakers. The artistic resourcefulness on display would either inspire them or, better still, force them to consider a career in waste management. Lloyd and his contemporaries examined situations and then devised gags that would organically flow from those situations. Today’s filmmakers would give it about thirty seconds after establishing the setting before sending dozens of spaceships careening through every sideshow attraction in sight.

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Comments

Great recommendations! According to Hal Roach, Samuel Goldwyn was a glove manufacturer before getting involved with movies and helped Lloyd find the right glovemakers.

Info gleaned from the great Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary on Harold Lloyd:

Part one - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp50U1zZIpc

Part two - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-syc2MJme3Y

None

by Colonna

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