Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Chairman Mouse

Painted dolls, Harold Lloyd and other miracles

OK, children: who do you think this is? In light of what I posted yesterday, rare photos of Harold Lloyd in his Mack Sennett/pre-Glass-Character days (hell, even before Lonesome Luke!), you might think this is the same guy. Particularly since he's dressed like a minister, and appears to be wearing horn-rimmed glasses.

It ain't.

I don't know who this guy is, but he isn't Harold Lloyd. Not by a long shot. That scares me, because one would think his face and demeanor would be practically trademarked by then.

These few grainy shots, one of them blown up to make it more discernible, are from an atrocious but interesting early talkie, in fact the first "all singing, all dancing" musical, the notorious Broadway Melody.

It wasn't called the BWM of 1938, or 1947, or anything like that, because there had never BEEN a Broadway Melody on film before, and though audiences loved the novelty of sound numbers with chorus girls flailing all over the place, it's a good thing this particular movie never happened again.

The musical numbers, though bizarre, aren't so bad. My favorite: Wedding of the Painted Doll, a quirky little number full of xylophone music and a tenor singing in the high, wavery voice favored in the 1920s. For this musical came out in 1929, just at the turning point of sound films. Whenever  one of these early talkies comes on Turner Classics, I watch it, no matter how atrocious. In fact, the more atrocious it is, the more fascinated I am.

It's a sort of sociological exercise which tells us where audiences were in 1929: mostly confused. The studios were even more confused, panic-stricken in fact. The minister in this oddball wedding scene is an acrobat who flips and cartwheels onstage as if he's made of rubber. I doubt if Harold Lloyd could do as well. But he's not billed anywhere, and I'll be damned if I'll try to look it up and turn into one of those 93-year-old silent film afficionados who remember exact statistics and scream at you if you misquote them even a little bit, as if it's a mortal sin to forget what Louise Brooks had for breakfast.

So I won't even take a stab at it, though knowing these folks there's probably a whole blog about it: That Minister Guy Who Turned Cartwheels On Stage in Wedding of the Painted Doll from Broadway Melody.

Likely he was pulled out of the chorus of some obscure stage musical, or even taken from a circus. He had his thirty seconds of fame, and that's it.

But doesn't he look a whole lot like Harold Lloyd, and is there a reason for that? Lloyd was just releasing his own first talkie, the abominable Welcome Danger, which I've tried to like but can't. My stomach keeps rejecting it like some food I am violently allergic to. It's an ugly, ugly picture, full of thumps, thuds, bad and mis-dubbed dialogue, and even a mean main character I can't warm up to, as if Harold's personality and charm had to change along with the times. 

But it didn't matter then. Maybe this minister in his frock coat was a stock figure, much like the minister Harold played for Sennett in 1915. Strangely enough, there is a connection: the movie was called Her Painted Hero.

Who knows what else lurks in the dusty, fusty vaults. I am sort of hoping nothing, because I am really getting obsessed here and soon have to leave it alone. My manuscript has gone to the proofreader now, meaning the galleys will soon come back to me and I will have my last chance to correct small glitches. For the past few days, all I can think of is a possible mistake I made in continuity, but I am afraid to look at the manuscript to confirm it. I think if I look at it one more time, I'll simply expire.

POST-SCRIPT. Let's do a little comparison, shall we? One of my famous "separated at birth" things. Might be fun.



Not Harold.


Not Harold.

Just a coincidence?  I. . . DON'T. . . THINK. . . SO!

His face at first just ghostly (or, the unknown Harold Lloyd)

In HER PAINTED HERO, Lloyd plays a minister who arrives at a mansion (in reality A.G. Schlosser’s Castle San Souci, the same location used in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE and several other Sennett films) to preside over a wedding. This was actually the second time Lloyd had played a minister at Keystone—the first time had been in THEIR SOCIAL SPLASH, made the previous month.

From Mack Sennett: A Celebration of the King of Comedy and his Studio, Films and Comedians


I never in a million years thought I'd find anything like this. Goes to show that no matter how many times I go to the well, I always seem to dredge up something of interest about the elusive, enigmatic Harold Lloyd.

And this time, it's a bucket of gold.

I'd heard the story - heard Harold tell it in an archival clip on the bonus disc in the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection DVD set - but never thought I'd find any evidence. Back in 1915 - 1915! - Lloyd had a little disagreement with his director Hal Roach about pay. He was getting paid something like $5.00 a week to run around and play any and ever part necessary, but when he found out this other guy (who? Who cares) was getting $10.00 a week, he "walked". I don't for a minute think this is true - he was probably butting heads with Roach in his typical temperamental (some say childish) way, and went stomping off to Mack Sennett for spite.

I don't think Sennett had to think very hard about hiring Harold Lloyd. He had talent shooting out of his fingertips and charisma oozing out of his pores. So for a year Harold went to comedy boot camp, and probably learned a lot of skills (the pratfall being one of them) that he would take back with him when he and Roach kissed and made up.

This is one of many examples of how and why Lloyd became so famous: he made gravy out of everything, squeezed advantage out of disadvantage, learned like crazy, and had the kind of determination it was impossible to knock down. And there was another factor: Fate just kissed him on the forehead and said, "Mein boy." The rest is history.

But look at this! There are actual photos here from one of his Sennett films. He plays a minister in this, which is weird because Muriel in The Glass Character describes him as being "more like a minister than a comedian". I think he may have been slotted into straight-man roles mainly because he just wasn't funny-looking enough for Keystone, though he did an inevitable stint as a cop running frantically around and waving a nightstick.

These photos are ghostly, out of focus, dreamlike, almost unreal - and Lloyd was only 21 or 22, a mere stripling. But take a look at these and tell me they AREN'T Harold Lloyd. Stripling he may be (or strip loin, whichever), but in some ways he is full-blown, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. (I try to work that phrase in whenever I can.) His body posture, his face, even the way he wears the costume - all are Lloyd in embryo, a man who had no idea how famous he was going to be, or what it would cost him.

(But can you tell me, please - is he wearing glasses here? There are so many conflicting stories of the provenance of the glasses that one wonders. Too blurry to tell, but I'd say not. Wait a couple more years for the lightning-stroke.)