Monday, July 1, 2013

Was there a down side to Harold Lloyd?






A down side? Whaaaaat?

Why, certainly.

We could start with the talkies. Like every other huge star of the silent screen, the advent of the "talking picture" (originally called "talkers", a more logical term) traumatized Lloyd to the point of forcing him  to seriously regroup. Eventually he came to realize he was under immense pressure to let all the old pieces go and start from the ground up.

He found it nearly impossible. My feeling is that he stubbornly held on to aspects of his past filmmaking success, certain in his mind that at some point, things would turn around and the old visual style of comedy would return.





Though sight gags never entirely disappeared and still figure large in a lot of comedy, an actor's signature phrases ("I'm sorry, Ollie", "My little chickadee", "Hey, Abbott!") became essential for moving a comic persona forward. Another dimension had popped out, the other half, so to speak.  You didn't have to have a "great" voice or even a "good" one. You just had to have a memorable voice that expressed the character in no uncertain terms. (Perhaps the acid test was this: could you recognize it on the radio?)

Garbo made it because her dark, velvety voice startled people and dovetailed beautifully with her smoky, exotic looks. Can you imagine W. C. Fields without his whiny and irritating, carnival barker's delivery? And with their endless eccentric bantering, Laurel and Hardy were reborn as huge stars. But these were the few who lucked out. 

At the beginning, almost no one knew how to use the voice to best effect. Early "talkers" were pretty atrocious (I just saw an unintentionally hilarious one called The Vagabond Lover on Turner Classics, in which the hums, buzzes and crackles on the sound track nearly drowned out the dreary, colorless delivery of the lines). It didn't matter much, because the public flocked to them anyway.







It took a few years for things to settle. I always see 1931 as the year that things began to really work. An actor's voice became his calling card, and it didn't have to be conventionally audiogenic. Those actors in the gangster pictures had nasty snarly voices to go with their nasty snarly personalities. Vocal sneers.  But this non-law also applied to leading men. Think of Jimmy Stewart with his high, wavering, stammering delivery which somehow, almost magically conveyed integrity. Now how did he do that?

But Harold, now. Harold somehow didn't get it. After so many years of mastery, of innovative film-making, he didn't see the train coming.  When all this mayhem was going on, he was making a silent feature called Welcome Danger - an awful one, as it turned out, which is puzzling because he had never done anything like that before. It was 1929, everything was changing, and like Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd was stubbornly hanging on to what had worked for him before.







A critic named Welford Beaton, whose very name suggests doddering and fustiness, had some decided opinions on what was happening at the time: "The silent drama has become a great art and I hope the advent of sound is not going to arrest its development." Sidney Kent of Paramount (and who knows who the fxxx Sidney Kent of Paramount was, but hey, it's a great quote) wrote, "Personally, I believe the time will never come when the outstanding silent pictures will be out of the market. We are trying to work out the best possible combination of sound and silent."

This reminds me of nothing more than Martin Short's insanely hilarious character Irving Cohen, a doddering old Hollywood relic: "So I walked into Jolson's office, at that time, and I said to him, Asa, this talking picture business will never get off the ground!"

As for that "best possible combination,"  such an unlikely hybrid was bound to fail, as Harold found out with his ill-conceived Welcome Danger. Legend has it he watched a movie short full of "punk gags" like whistles blowing, fire engine sirens, etc. - anything involving sound - and the audience was laughing uproariously. Shocked out of his denial about talking pictures, he suddenly decided to graft a sound track on to his partially-completed movie, with awkward, badly-dubbed results.





I have seen Welcome Danger one-and-a-half times, forcing myself to stay with it after bailing the first time. I was watching it in a hotel room with my husband a few years ago. "Look! There's a Harold Lloyd movie!" (He thought we were in for a couple of hours of enthusiastic squeaking and ahhhh-ing.) The first time Harold opened his mouth, I said, "Oh nooooooooooo." Midway, I sadly turned it off. "He didn't have a good voice," Bill said. But it was much more than that. 

I still don't really know what Welcome Danger is about. It goes on far too long, though the original cut was an astonishing two hours and forty-five minutes. Why was Harold making so many mistakes, even before this disastrous failed transplant? Only one picture ago, with Speedy, he was at the very top of his game. Now this. To me, it's an indication that Lloyd was profoundly spooked and had already lost his way. 






Harold's character in this mess, a man with the hideous name of Bledsoe, is some kind of botanist trying to break up a Chinese opium ring while pursuing a girl dressed like a boy. But when he opens his mouth to speak, he sounds like Jiminy Cricket on helium. That fussy, strident quality is an immediate turnoff. Whatever emotional appeal he had in his silents - and in most of them, his character was vulnerable enough to have it - evaporated, and sadly never really returned.

I don't like Richard Schickel's book about Harold, don't like his lack of respect and assumptions about Harold's personal life, but I have to agree with him that in his sound pictures, his voice was "inescapably colorless and flat - prissy would be the best way to describe it." The voice isn't just pitched too high (though at moments of stress it shoots up into the stratosphere until he sounds like a hysterical girl) - it has a lightness and lack of resonance that doesn't record well.  And for some reason, the delivery is unnatural, awkwardly hokey. Of course a comedian can sound weird as all get-out and still make it, but whatever he's doing, it doesn't work. All this from a man who began his career as a stage actor,  believing it was his destiny.





Ironically, when you look at interviews with the ageing Lloyd (and like a lot of good-looking men, his looks wore well as he evolved into a twinkly old charmer), his voice has dropped considerably, relaxed and mellowed into something you could easily listen to for two hours. It still isn't particularly deep or resonant, but it has a great raconteur quality, and an expressiveness that never came across in his post-silent films. The odd Nebraskan inflection pops through to charming effect: "While we were working on that picture, I think it was Girl Shy, the fire hose flew up and struck me on the foah-hayyd."

There were so many more after Welcome Danger (which, ironically, had better box office than any of his other movies due to his fans' curiosity about his voice), and I have tried to like them, believe me, I've tried. And the problem isn't just his voice. Though individual scenes work, something just isn't right. Hal Roach, his friend and longtime director, put it this way: "His character couldn't age."





No matter how good he looked, and he did look good even with the slightly higher hairline, you can't slip The Boy into a middle-aged body and work it like a puppet. A scene in Movie Crazy really does drive me crazy as he parodies the melodrama of the talkies: his voice soars up and up, growing more strident by the sentence. Feet First is even worse: he does an aerial stunt (and that's another water hazard of the new era: repeating gags, which most comedians had to resort to), yelling in that shrill near-falsetto for about 15 minutes as he scrambles agonizingly up the side of a tall building. The surreal, thrilling climb that worked so well in 1923 is just awful with grunts, yells and traffic sounds added, and some theatres did their audiences a favor during the sequence by turning the sound track off. 

Is there any good news here? Unlike most people, I did sort of like The Cat's Paw, in which he played a missionary (of all things!), but again the high light voice evoked a kind of virginity that had been kept in a glass case. Everything I've ever read about Lloyd indicates exactly the opposite: women loved him from the start, and he was not about to turn them away. Harold lived large, and never wanted just a little of anything.




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The classic musical  Singin' in the Rain (often called one of the best movies ever made, which is strange because I hate everything about it) dealt with the revolution in sound film, as did the more recent The Artist. (Ditto. I did not like any of the characters, from that ditsy little girl Blinkie or whatever-her-name-was to the strange Douglas Fairbanks-looking guy or that wretched dog lifted from The Thin Man, or perhaps Frasier.) As everyone predicted, all the actors from that much-touted movie disappeared without a trace, which is probably good for my mental health.

The Jazz Singer  supposedly began the revolution in 1927, even though it wasn't even a talkie - my ass it was a talkie, it had titles all the way through it, and only had sound during Jolson's blackface songs about tootsie rolls or whatever. What most people don't realize is that sound could have been introduced several years earlier - the technology had been basically worked out - but the industry dug in and resisted, and viewed from today's perspective, it's easy to see why. 





Harold kept at it, ending his movie career in 1947 with an ill-advised comedy called, variously, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock and Mad Wednesday. Even the wildly-popular director  Preston Sturges (with a nudge from producer Howard Hughes) couldn't save this one. Harold was 54, still playing boys that hadn't quite grown up. I find it excruciating to watch this so-called extension of his legendary The Freshman: he plays a man stuck in his dead-end job, stuck in his lonely life. He hasn't grown up at all. There is a scene where he is obviously deeply depressed, and I just didn't want to see it: his Glass Character never stayed down for long, but this fellow had been down all his life.

How could a man lose such great acting chops after all this time? Maybe he just didn't know how to apply them in an unfamiliar medium.  Though Harold went charging forward into a million other activities that he kept up for a lifetime, including a tremendous amount of philanthropy, the loss of his celestial career was sad for him, sad for movie posterity, sad for us all.




Post-blog:  There's one movie I've never seen, a mid-'30s Lloyd talkie called Professor Beware. All the evidence I've found that it ever existed are some stills, and all I know about it is that Lloyd didn't like it. He may have done something to the negative - Harold was even closer with his movies than he was with his money - or else it's just hiding in an old tin can in a basement somewhere. There was a rumor it was shown on Turner Classics, but only once. I WANT TO SEE THIS MOVIE. Not that it will necessarily be better than the others. It's the fact that it's not available. Is someone, perhaps the mysterious, unknowable Rich Correll, keeping this thing banked for a rainy day? 


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