Silent Classics: Speedy (1928)

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Whenever someone asks me who my favorite star from the silent era is, I’m always compelled to say, “Harold Lloyd”.  I can’t exactly put my finger on what exactly makes him my favorite but I think I know why. I think it has to do with that everyman quality of his and that geeky look. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that he resembles me a little bit. Buster Keaton would be my second favorite. I enjoy Keaton’s work a lot but the reason I slightly prefer Lloyd over Keaton is because Keaton’s stoic persona is not always so fun to watch, despite the many impossible stunts and clever gags he comes up with. On the other hand, I think Lloyd’s films work more for me because I think his brand of physical comedy is more complex and I find him much more relatable compared to the other two.

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Just like in his 1923 masterpiece Safety Last!, Lloyd plays a likable everyman named Harold Something with a nickname “Speedy”. Apparently, Lloyd’s real-life nickname was Speedy and this how the film got its title. Speedy is unable to hold a steady job due to his incorrigible obsession with baseball. He is in love with a girl named Jane Dillon and they both live with her father Pop Dillon, who owns and runs the last streetcar in the city. At the beginning of the film, Speedy has a job working as a soda jerk and we are treated to a little taste of his amazing skills behind the counter. Consider this as an appetizer for the spectacular stunts that are about to follow. His compulsion to check baseball scores periodically interferes with his job. He makes a scoreboard out of the pastries kept on sale, unbeknownst to his boss. Needless to say, he loses that job too and soon goes looking for another. When he gets employed as a cab driver, this provides plenty of opportunities for some cleverly staged gags that will astonish you. One of these gags features Babe Ruth, a real baseball player, who plays himself.

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But he has no choice but to leave this job too when he ends up with two traffic tickets and an irate passenger. But the real fun begins when Speedy decides to interfere in a small matter involving a greedy businessman and Pop’s street car. What ensues is one clever set piece after another, with Speedy smartly resolving every obstacle that comes his way with his quick thinking and improvisational skills. Aiding him is a stray dog that keeps following him everywhere. For some reason, this dog thinks that he and Speedy would make a perfect team. The antics are deliciously good and some of them managed to make my belly ache. There is so much to learn from the film, particularly the way it is filmed. I heard that Lloyd used hidden cameras to get some of the difficult shots. The climactic chase in the film reminded me of the famous car chase in William Friedkin’s The French Connection, and this got me wondering if it’s one of Friedkin’s favorite films.

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However, there is one scene in particular that I was very curious about. This scene appears quite early in the film. Lloyd is at a fair taking a walk with the beautiful Ann Christy (who plays Jane) and is trying so hard to make sure that his new suit doesn’t get ruined in any way. A moment later, he leans back on a freshly painted fence and doesn’t notice the new design on the back of his suit until a while later, when he checks himself in a distorted mirror. Fed up, he shows his middle finger to his reflection and leaves. I couldn’t believe it and I had to rewind the scene to confirm what I thought I had just seen. Showing the middle finger in a 1920s film? What? I checked the Wikipedia page for the film and it says there that this may be the earliest depiction of this gesture in a motion picture. The film works not only as a brilliant comedy but also as a good visual document of America in the 1920s. I particularly love watching anything that is set in the 1920s-50s.

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