The Man Who Would Do Anything for a Laugh

Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) is about due for resurrection and revaluation now that the roaring 20’s have resurfaced as the booming 90’s and the Film Forum is obliging with nine Mondays dedicated to the “Third Genius of Silent Comedy.” There’ll be double bills of Lloyd’s golden-age silents (with Steve Sterner’s piano accompaniment), several brassy and underrated talkies, and a few early short subject films. The series will run from May 17 to July 12, and should serve to remind us how much we have lost in the sheer craftsmanship of building up a gag with patience and precision until it explodes with a belly laugh.

Lloyd may never be as much beloved as the other great clowns of his time. Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton-who would be the first and second geniuses in Film Forum’s ranking-eternally fascinate the intellectuals, and the comic masks of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy remain instantly identifiable to revelers of all nations. Harry Langdon and Raymond Griffith seem more interesting than Lloyd to the more esoteric researchers in silent screen comedy. Fatty Arbuckle survives as a tragic victim of American puritanism run rampant. Granted, Lloyd projected neither the tragicomic depths of Chaplin, nor the amazingly absurdist concoctions of Keaton. Worst of all, Lloyd was perceived as not having outlasted his own time as the pushy go-getter of the Jazz Age.

Still, Walter Kerr noted that though Lloyd was not funny in and of himself, he did funny things. Richard Schickel has championed the visual naturalism of Lloyd’s comedies against the stylized distortions of Chaplin’s and Keaton’s. The time has come, therefore, to overcome our preconceptions about Lloyd’s hail-fellow-well-met persona, and look at the movies he made. In the process, we may find ourselves-to our genuine surprise-laughing uncontrollably. As we laugh, Lloyd lives again.

Safety Last (1923) kicks off the series with a vertiginous near-spill, and was in its time one of Lloyd’s most famous and most archetypal works. Its concluding set piece-Lloyd’s perilous “human fly” climb up the side of a department store-established for all time the spatial metaphor for an American’s rise to the top in the midst of a fear of falling. As Lloyd became known as the comedian who would do anything for a laugh, the character he played became known as the jazz age climber who would do anything to succeed.

There is a wildly lyrical moment when Lloyd is swinging crazily from a rope, a moment that Keaton might have extended in time for its feelings of freedom and exhilaration. Lloyd treats this moment merely as an interruption in the ultimate climb, and quickly returns to the business at hand. Even so, Lloyd gives us a glimpse of an impervious city, and thus makes the spectacle more frighteningly real and more majestically social. The spectacular climax of Safety Last undoubtedly influenced Chaplin’s cabin-teetering-on-the-cliff imagery in The Gold Rush (1925).

The Freshman (1925) represents Lloyd at the peak of his comic powers, but the film is also a resounding restatement of his ignoble values of worldly success and social acceptance. When I used to screen The Freshman for the flower-child generation of students in the 60’s, they would boo Lloyd’s craven conformity. They simply could not imagine anyone wanting to be Big Man on Campus. The 80’s grunt generation of students seemed to be more charitable to Lloyd, but they seemed to be disconcerted by the lack of irony in his attitude. Woody Allen, one feels, would manage to have his cake and eat it, too.

Similarly, the funniest scene in the film-the prom scene with the loosely stitched dress suit and the accompanying tailor with the fainting fits-depends for its comic effect on a deep, instinctive fear of humiliation. Today’s students with their ultra-casual dress are reluctant to project themselves back into an era when even the young dressed up for social occasions. It is significant also that the Lloyd hero is transformed from water boy to football hero in full view of thousands of fans, whereas Buster Keaton in College (1927) performs his heroic athletic feats (to save his girl from a cad) in relative solitude. With Lloyd, the love of his girl is taken for granted; it is the approval of all his classmates for which he yearns most intensely.

By thus reflecting the middle-class values and aspirations of his audience, Lloyd becomes much more of a sociological icon than either Chaplin or Keaton with their eccentric aloofness from their own time. But more than that, The Freshman is a triumph of comic craftsmanship, a virtually seamless series of gags, characterization and narrative. One might note, for example, that Lloyd captures not only the perpetual striving for upward mobility in the middle class, but also the paranoia that accompanies it. It is a view of America as seen from the inside, and, as such, records an era without condescension.

Chaplin once ruefully remarked that silent movies had just learned their craft when they were obliterated by the talkies. The Kid Brother (1927) and Speedy (1928) are cases in point for Lloyd. Both were directed by Ted Wilde, and there is some controversy among film historians as to the extent of his influence on Lloyd in these, his loosest, sweetest and most relaxed comedies.

All in all, these two graceful achievements mark Lloyd as the professional equal of Chaplin and Keaton in this period of film history. Lloyd is more the realist, they more the abstractionists. And it is always hard to compare chronicles with fantasies, but Lloyd seems to be more in the mainstream of the movie industry, which may explain why he ended up in a backwater of film history.

Throughout his career, and particularly in The Kid Brother and Speedy , Lloyd gained a great deal of comic mileage out of animals, more so than any other comedian. Dogs, cats, monkeys, horses, turkeys, cows, goats, chickens, pigeons and even a lion have been ingeniously integrated into Lloyd’s comic vision. Not being funny himself, Lloyd had to make everything and everyone around him work to his benefit, even the immortal Babe Ruth in Speedy , one of the enduring valentines to New York from Hollywood. For a schedule, call Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, at 727-8110.

An Unusually Tepid May-to-September Affair

Jon Amiel’s Entrapment , from a screenplay by Ronald Bass and William Broyles, based on a story by Mr. Bass and Michael Hertzberg, has all the snap, crackle and pop, storywise, of a wet noodle, and many bad reviews to go with it. So naturally, it winds up No. 1 on the movie box office charts.

I say naturally, because almost every first-week box-office champion this year has been preceded by a chorus of disapproval from the critics. It seems that audiences distrust us critics so much that they flock to see anything we don’t like. Ah, but we keep our integrity, even though we remain dirt-poor and thoroughly despised besides. One reported explanation for the commercial success of Entrapment is that mature women go to see it for the still charismatic 68-year-old Sean Connery, while young males swarm to drool over the newest va-voom girl, 29-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones.

At one point in the tepid proceedings, Mr. Connery’s Mac, a supposedly retired cat burglar, seems poised to pounce on Ms. Zeta-Jones’ Gin, a seemingly willing hot-to-trot insurance detective Mata Hari. Mumbling something about problems, Mac retreats from the invitingly prostrate Gin, and they never do consummate the lusts the genre presupposes. Some cynics may chortle that Mac simply forgot to take his Viagra, but I would argue instead that Mr. Amiel and his scenarists prudently decided that the last thing the two box-office constituencies for Entrapment wanted to see were their separate fantasies coming together in carnal congress.

For the rest, Ms. Zeta-Jones, a onetime teenage British stage musical star who can sing, dance and act, winningly exploits her balletic talents as Mr. Connery gazes upon her luscious physical attributes with a grizzled wisdom that is not without charm. Why then am I so hard on the stupefying emptiness of the high-tech Y2K caper plot? Haven’t I ever seen a hard-to-believe caper movie before? I have actually seen and enjoyed many. This is simply one of the worst I have ever witnessed.

The Dogma: Dismal, Dismal, Dismal

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher represents, at least for me, the other extreme from Entrapment . Where Entrapment has been fabricated by a committee of bottom-line specialists, Pusher is the first feature film of an insolent writer-director auteur who has expressed nothing but contempt for the studio system, though he has acknowledged the influence of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, John Huston, Gillo Pontecorvo, Sergio Leone, Hal Ashby, Wong Kar-Wai, Robert Altman, William Wellman, Abel Ferrara, John Sayles and many other denizens of the lower depths.

One director about whom Mr. Refn is more ambivalent is Lars Von Trier. Yet, though Mr. Refn does not officially subscribe to the overhyped Dogma 95, his grim, minimalist saga of an ultimately disastrous week in the dreary life of a heroin pusher in Copenhagen is so addicted to long single-take Steadicam shots from the point of view of its protagonist, Frank (Kim Bodnia), that for a long time we have only the vaguest idea of what Frank looks like. Dismal, dismal, dismal. I can’t believe that this is the only alternative to the glossiness of Entrapment .

The Man Who Would Do Anything for a Laugh