Speedy

Directed by Ted Wilde, USA, 1928
Cast Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, and Babe Ruth
Production Harold Lloyd Corporation Print Source Janus Films

Presented at SFSFF 2015
Live Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Essay by Jeffrey Vance


Speedy, Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, is a superb valedictory to the silent film era. “Speedy” was Lloyd’s real-life nickname (given to him by his father), and the film lives up to its title. Wonderfully fast-paced and stylish, it is filled with brilliant comedy, thrills, and surprises, climaxing with a wild chase through the streets of New York City.

Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift, a baseball-crazy young man who cannot hold a job. His employment misadventures include work as a soda jerk and a cab driver. Harold’s girlfriend Jane (Ann Christy) lives with her grandfather, “Pop” Dillon (Bert Woodruff), who owns New York’s last horse-drawn streetcar. The horse and tramcar are stolen by a gang hired by a railroad monopoly. By stopping Pop Dillon’s streetcar from operating for more than twenty-four hours, the rail monopoly hopes to steal away his franchise.

Realizing that no studio set in Hollywood could replicate Manhattan, Lloyd decided to film Speedy partially in New York City. Evocative scenes of the rides and arcades of Steeplechase and Luna Park at Coney Island make up the bulk of the New York material, although Lloyd also filmed at the Plaza Hotel, the Queensboro and Brooklyn bridges, Wall Street, Times Square, Greenwich Village, Central Park, and Yankee Stadium (featuring an extended cameo by baseball legend Babe Ruth). Glimpses of some of this footage can be seen in the film, providing an invaluable record of New York in the 1920s.

Inevitably, the crowds that gathered to watch the proceedings caused delays to such an extent that an intended four-week shooting schedule quickly turned into twelve, and the company resorted to hiding the cameras to film scenes furtively and quickly. To complete the film, Lloyd eventually created a Lower East Side street set at a cost of $80,000 on property he owned in Westwood, California. Few films of the period had bravely ventured—and succeeded—in using the bustling city’s locations to the extent of Speedy. Buster Keaton attempted it with The Cameraman (1928), but ultimately he and his crew retreated to MGM’s Culver City studios because of the disruptions caused by the crowds as soon as Keaton was recognized.
Harold Lloyd was virtually unrecognizable without his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and, owing to his average American man screen persona, was better able to stroll through a crowd unnoticed than Keaton. In fact, Lloyd bet director Ted Wilde he could walk down any two blocks of Fifth Avenue in daylight with no makeup and go unnoticed. Wilde chose the most difficult stretch—Forty-first to Forty-third streets—but Lloyd nevertheless won the bet. He later admitted that he had lowered his eyes to avoid eye contact with anyone and, at the appointed time of the bet (four p.m.), everyone was bound somewhere in a hurry and preoccupied with their own business.
Despite Lloyd’s preparations for the New York shoot, not everything went as planned. One accident that occurred resulted in the creation of a wonderful gag. During the filming of the climactic race to the rescue, Harold drove a horsecar pell-mell through New York City traffic—at full speed down Third Avenue—and struck the post of an elevated subway track, throwing the stunt driver from the cab. Miraculously, neither the driver nor the horses were injured, and the accident provided such wonderful footage that Lloyd reworked the material into the film. After the horsecar crashes into the pole, Harold commandeers a manhole cover and ingeniously uses it to replace the car’s broken wheel. It cannot be overstated how much grueling work went into filming these silent feature-length comedies. That these quick minds could turn a mistake on location into a great comedy sequence is a marvel.

A bad unplanned situation came up in the editing room after they returned to Los Angeles, when they realized they needed shots of Lloyd in medium close-up driving the streetcar during the final chase. The cost of returning to New York for what ended up being less than one minute of film was prohibitive. Lloyd instead opted to use the new Williams process, a visual effect that made him appear to be driving at a frantic speed through the streets of the city. He had never before used this process, now more commonly know as rear-screen projection, as the technology was in its infancy. Unfortunately, the technique is apparent to modern eyes and detracts slightly from what is otherwise a brilliantly executed chase.

For his leading lady, Lloyd replaced Jobyna Ralston (whose contract had expired with The Kid Brother) with Ann Christy, who had appeared in Christie Comedies (produced by Al Christie). Lloyd thought Christy looked like a modern New York girl. Although she has many charming scenes in Speedy—particularly in the Coney Island sequences—she showed little of the depth that Ralston had been able to bring to the previous Lloyd films.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth, the best-known baseball player of his time, is first seen giving away baseballs to children at a city orphanage on First Avenue when he hails Speedy’s cab. Starstruck Speedy can only watch his idol Babe in the back seat and not the road ahead, and his worshipful awe results in a comedy-of-thrills cab ride through the traffic to Yankee Stadium. Ruth agreed to appear in the film in part because Wilde had just directed him a film called Babe Comes Home (1927).

Whereas Lloyd’s typical releases went through five or six preview screenings, he only found it necessary to have three previews before he was convinced Speedy was finished. The film appropriately premiered in New York City—a first for a Lloyd feature—to a clamor of critical applause and tremendous popularity with the public. Although it made slightly less at the box office than his previous effort, The Kid Brother, it holds the distinction of being the only Harold Lloyd film to receive an Academy Award nomination. Ted Wilde was nominated for Best Comedy Director, a category that was eliminated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after the first ceremony. Lloyd, one of the founding members of the actor’s branch of the Academy, eventually received an honorary Oscar in 1953.

In the same year Speedy was released, Lloyd published his autobiography, titled An American Comedy (a play on the title of Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, An American Tragedy). Written in collaboration with Wesley W. Stout during the making of Speedy, the book provides a good account of Lloyd’s story and gag construction while making the film.

In his autobiography as well as in his films, Lloyd both reflected and shaped the idealism of 1920s America. Speedy, his last film before the Great Depression brought the Jazz Age to a close, was also his last silent film and the last great film he ever made.

—Jeffrey Vance