Thursday, April 21, 2011

Do you call that thing a book?

I can't name a favorite Harold Lloyd movie. Like children or grandchildren, they're all special to me in their own way. But there is one in which Harold plays a character who is very close to my heart.

I watched Girl Shy again last night. I don't know what it is about this man: he was magical. Tender and fierce, brilliant and adorably clueless. He plays a tailor's assistant in a small town, a meek loner who can't even speak because of a debilitating stutter. By chance, he meets and wins the love of a beautiful rich girl with his sincerity and pure heart. But he has only one chance to make himself worthy of her: to become rich and famous as the author of a ludicrous guide to romance called The Secret of Making Love.

After being laughed and jeered out of the publisher's office, he does the only thing possible: sacrifices his own heart so that she will be spared the indignity of loving a pennyless loser. So he drives her away. He drives her away not just by taunting her, but by laughing at the very idea that they were ever in love. It is Lloyd's Pagliacci moment, the time when he must don the motley, play the clown, and break her heart for her own good. It is excruciating to watch, and one of those moments when Lloyd's extraordinary ability as an actor takes your breath away.

But the scene that really tears my heart out (can you guess why?) is that awful moment in the publisher's office, when he is briefly hopeful, then completely shattered. Social humiliation plays a large part in Harold Lloyd's universe, and he has an uncomfortable way of pulling his audience close and asking, "Has this ever happened to you?".

There is something in his eyes - his stunned, vulnerable, devastated eyes - the bottom suddenly dropping out of his world with a sickening gut-lurch, not because he won't be famous, but because he knows he will have to cut his girl loose, it's the only way to be fair to her - it's, what is it anyway? It's hard to watch, and the tension builds almost unbearably until the time when we can mercifully laugh again.

This is not mere comedy, folks, this is something else. This isn't the soppy melodrama of Chaplin or the can't-win fatalism of Keaton. Lloyd is a hopeful loser. And we so want him to win, we need him to win, for if we leave him in that terrible sinking vortex of failed dreams, we'll be reminded of things we don't want to recall.

But as always (and as in Lloyd's real life), Fate intervenes. In his darkest hour, tragedy is flipped over and transformed into a kind of acerbic comedy: the publisher suddenly decides to release his failed manuscript as a comic farce called The Boob's Diary. At first he rages and rails: they can't do this to me! It's undignified! Then, on reflection - and no doubt thinking of the girl - he reconsiders. . .

Ah, yes. The comprimise! (Has this ever happened to you?)

The most famous sequence in Girl Shy is the spectacular race to the church to prevent the rich girl from marrying a bigamist. I won't get into that now, as you should be watching it right this minute instead of reading about it, do you hear me? Get some Lloyd DVDs now, so you'll know what I'm talking about! If you don't, you're missing small masterpieces that tell stories that are not just humorous, but human.

The laughter in Lloyd comedies arises from an unlikely source, and it isn't just the ordinary fellow in extraordinary situations. It's from identification with a profound social dislocation. Harold so wants to belong, and doesn't, and can't, until he finally discovers, at the end of practically every movie, that there is only one person he needs to belong to. Because once he belongs to himself, you see, the girl is in the bag.

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