There are many pleasures to be found in silent comedy. There’s the energy of the Keystone Kops, the mix of slapstick and emotion of Charlie Chaplin, and the stone-faced absurdity of Buster Keaton. But one of the most underrated pleasures in silent comedy can be found in the films of an underappreciated actor: the escalation from realism to a type of low-key surrealism in the comedy of Harold Lloyd.
Much like Chaplin, Lloyd’s most famous character wore a costume. But whereas Chaplin’s costume was somewhat elaborate — bowler, pants that were several sizes too big, a cane — the most notable thing about Lloyd’s character, often referred to as his “Glasses Character,” was a single pair of glasses. The glasses made him seem, as Lloyd said in a 1962 interview with journalist Harry Reasoner, like he “was a kid that you would meet next door, across the street.” In his most famous films, such as Safety Last! (1923) and Speedy (1928), that personable quality would make his increasingly surreal comedic stunts believable.
This approach of reality escalating to a type of surreality can be found in Safety Last! It features a young man, also named Harold Lloyd, trying to find success in a new city. His desires — to impress his girlfriend, to succeed — are realistic. But after he has to fill in for a stuntman to get $1,000 by climbing a building, the film takes a surreal edge due to the unusual nature of his task. Nevertheless, the realism of what had come before grounds the film, as well as that of Lloyd’s character himself, and makes every move Lloyd makes during this sequence, including the famous shot of him hanging from a clock, incredibly suspenseful. This film is 96 years old, but I still found myself breathlessly wondering, “Is he going to die?”
Lloyd continued this formula in Speedy, his last silent film. He plays a Yankees-obsessed young man who gets involved in a business war in New York City. Like his best work, Speedy features a type of heightened reality that works because it is grounded in the straightforward realism that Lloyd’s character embodies. Whether it is driving around Babe Ruth or leading an army of old men against an evil business tycoon, you accept the wild situations Lloyd’s character slowly falls into because his character seems so realistic.
There are many actors from the silent era who have left behind great bodies of work. Lloyd is one of them. By making his “Glasses Character” so believable and human, he makes the death-defying stunts and absurd comedy that he performs even more extreme because it is happening to somebody that you might know. This tension between a realistic character and non-realistic situations keeps Lloyd’s work eternally worth watching.
Speedy will be shown at the IU Cinema on October 17 as part of the CINEkids International Children’s Film Series and the Sound of Silents: Alloy Orchestra series. This screening will be accompanied by the world-renowned Alloy Orchestra, who will be performing their original score for the film.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.