Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Harold Herald

Harold Lloyd was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1920s, but once sound came in he faded.  By the end of the 1930s his career was all but over.  Not that he necessarily suffered--he had plenty of money and other interests. Still, he no doubt felt something was missing.

He lived long enough to see a revival of interest in silent comedy, and, owning most of his features, jumped on board.  This is how we get Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy, a compilation film he put together in 1962. I recently saw it in a theatre.  I think I saw it as a kid, and it's now available for free on YouTube, but there's really nothing like seeing great silent comedy on the big screen.

It introduced Lloyd to a new generation.  Overall, this is a good thing, and certainly what he shows should whet the appetite.  But there are problems.

The most obvious is it's still best to see his films as he made them--he was not only great at gags, he was pretty good at story construction.  Just seeing bits and pieces means you don't get the full context or feel the cumulative impact.

Second, there's a new, generally uninspired score by Walter Scharf.  During the film's original release it would have added a somewhat slightly modern note to the proceedings (even though Lloyd okayed it), but now it sounds slightly old-fashioned.

Third is the narration, which sometimes overdoes it. Same for the sound effects. Perhaps it was necessary, but I like my silent films silent.

But the worst thing is that Lloyd felt he had something to prove.  He was remembered as a (washed up) silent comedian, but he'd produced a fair number of talkies.  He was proud of those films and apparently wanted to show the modern audience they still held up. So for the five lengthy excerpts he includes, we get three from his silent classics--Hot Water, Why Worry? and Girl Shy--and two from his talkies--The Milky Way and Feet First.

His talkies, at their best, aren't half bad, but they can't compare to his classic silents.  His excerpt from Feet First is particularly egregious. It's a long selection that shows him climbing up a building.  Perhaps the most famous routine he ever did was climb a building in Safety Last!, and his attempt to repeat it in the later talkie suffers in comparison. It's poorly motivated and much less inspired.  It's also hurt by sound--hearing Harold grunt and moan and cry for help gets in the way of the magic. (It's also got some racial humor which doesn't play well today--I'm surprised it was still okay in 1962.)

There's no way Harold wasn't aware of this comparison. Perhaps his World Of Comedy would have worked a lot better if he'd been able to take that chip off his shoulder.


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