Death to Talkies!

10 October 2007

Silent comedies often get a bad press. Humour is said to date fast and many think that the comedies of the silent era were crass and unsophisticated, made up of jerky, flickering images accompanied by a tinkling piano.

From this almost forgotten age, most people will know of Charlie Chaplin, and possibly Buster Keaton but little else. Here is a box set of DVDs to change all that. ‘Harold Lloyd – The definitive collection’ reintroduces the genius of Harold Lloyd, this time for the DVD generation. His films are achingly funny, far from silent with well judged orchestral accompaniments, and will always make the audience root for Lloyd’s characters.

Harold Lloyd was the third great comedian of the silent cinema along with Chaplin and Keaton. He was a crowd- pleaser, making more films – and more money – than Chaplin. Known for his daredevil stunts, in his most iconic moment he hung from the hands of a clock high up on the outside of a skyscraper in ‘Safety Last’ (1923), an image recycled throughout film history from ‘Back to the Future’ (1985) to ‘Shanghai Knights'(2003).

His stunts are terrifying; with no CGI when Lloyd teeters on ledges and girders many storeys above the sidewalk. He really is that high and the drop really is that far.

These feats are made even more remarkable given that Lloyd was missing the thumb and forefinger of his right hand after an accident filming Haunted Spooks (1920) when he posed with what he thought was a prop bomb but which turned out to be live explosives.

Lloyd also provided adrenaline thrills through some technically impressive car chases, notably in ‘Speedy’ (1928). The white knuckle ride of an out of control double-decker bus full of drunken revellers careering through the streets in ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ (1926) is still on our screens today in an advert raising awareness of prostate cancer. Modern action movies, such as the films of Jackie Chan clearly owe a great deal to Lloyd’s thrill films.

The star of most of his films was his so-called ‘glasses character’. This was an optimistic and sympathetic go-getter with an engaging toothy grin in horn-rimmed spectacles and boater. He was always resourceful scrambling to the top of the pile, and he invariably got the girl, but he always remained likeable and the glasses accentuated his vulnerability giving him an endearing dash of geekiness, almost like an enthusiastic Woody Allen. It was a character to which Cary Grant in ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938) and Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in ‘Superman’ (1978) were very much indebted. In the can-do atmosphere of the roaring ‘20s this was a popular character and was easy to identify with.

Lloyd’s films combine the energetic spirit of

the ‘20s with glorious visuals. Most of the films show a growing Los Angeles with endless high-rise

building sites, but ‘Speedy’ gives a glimpse of

New York with shots of a full Yankee Stadium

and a cameo from Babe Ruth as well as sumptuous scenes of the attractions at Coney Island in their hey day.

The coming of sound helped to curtail Lloyd’s career, although he continued to make films, albeit with less success, and this collection contains five of his talkies.

In the depression his ‘glasses’ character became less popular and harder to identify with as poverty took hold. Lloyd, and following his death in 1971 his estate, put his efforts into preserving the films rather than showing them to a wider audience. As a result his films became gradually less familiar.

But now they’re available, fully restored, in this nine disc collection, launched in this country by his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd at this summer’s Cambridge Film Festival. The collection contains all his most significant work such as ‘Safety Last’ (as pictured left), ‘The Freshman’ (1925) and ‘The Kid Brother’ (1927) in over 29 hours of material with 16 features and 13 short films.

A whole stack of extras are also included such as gems like Lloyd’s home movies and interviews with family, friends and experts as well as commentaries on some of the films.

It is an impressively comprehensive collection and a joy to watch.