Speedy and the Fine Art of the Action Comedy, Part 1
Originally published on The Solute
It’s not an easy time to find a laugh at the movie theaters. As the majors pour more and more resources into fewer and fewer blockbuster films, there’s not as much room for the lower yield, but also lower risk, mid-budget comedy, and not as many stars who can guarantee their success.
That’s not to say comedy’s been abandoned so much as absorbed. The big-ticket comedies of the past few years — your Jumanjis, your Jungle Cruises, pretty much everything else Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson appears in — have relied as much on action-movie formulas and spectacles and brand-name recognition as laffs. Even the Marvel juggernaut is at its best producing action-packed sitcom episodes. As for just plain comedy-comedy, it’s mostly been relegated straight to streaming — depending on how unkind you feel like being, either a new medium separated from theatrical film by an increasingly thin line, the modern equivalent of TV movies, or the modern equivalent of the direct-to-video dumping grounds.
I miss big dumb comedy-comedies as much as anyone, but in a better world, this new landscape would offer as much possibility as it shut out. The action comedy is as old as the movies themselves — you could argue it’s practically synonymous with slapstick, at least any slapstick at a larger scale than three mopes smacking each other. And the old masters knew it brought out the best of both genres. Any action sequence that pushes the possibilities of the medium far enough is going to get laughs of disbelief, after all. And freed from the already loose reality of “straight” action movies, the action comedy can take action setpieces to their full potential.
All the great comedians of the silent era understood this — Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and as much as either of them, Harold Lloyd. I don’t know if I can quite back up my previous assertion that that last is the best of them. I’d based that on a count of my 5/5 ratings on Letterboxd, but I’ve since discovered three more equally flawless films from Keaton, and Chaplin’s quality-over-quantity approach was never going to serve him well in a numbers game. I’ll say this — Keaton may have pulled off more iconic stunts, but Lloyd still owns the single most recognizable stunt of the silent era with his clock-dangling act from Safety Last! And either way, Lloyd’s final silent film, Speedy embodies all the possibilities of the form in a way only a handful of other movies ever could.
Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift — no relation to the running joke in his other masterpiece, The Freshman, where he introduces himself, “Step right up and call me Speedy!” On the other hand, Harold Swift has every relation to Harold Lloyd. Like many of his peers, including Laurel and Hardy, who always went by “Stan and Ollie” no matter who they played, Lloyd almost always “played himself” with a slight change of name. I’m not using those scare quotes lightly, of course. His straw boater and owl-eye glasses were just as much a persona as Chaplin’s battered derby and tiny mustache. Lloyd even inspired Clark Kent with his habit of avoiding his fans simply by taking the glasses off, so take that everyone who says Superman’s disguise is unrealistic.
Whatever its hero’s nickname may be, Speedy could just as easily be a description of the movie itself, proof against the endless complaints that old movies are too slow if there ever was any. The first title card lets us know that Speedy takes place in “New York, where everybody is in such a hurry that they take Saturday’s bath on Friday so they can do Monday’s wash on Sunday.” The story may move to an enclave that’s ignored the city’s last fifty-odd years of development, home of the New York’s last horse-drawn trolley, but that title card still sets the pace for the rest of the movie.
That trolley, property of Speedy’s prospective grandfather-in-law Pop Dillon, eventually becomes the fulcrum of the plot when a railroad company gets increasingly violent in their attempts to force Pops out. But for all Speedy’s restless pace, it lets its plot develop slowly. We see the railroad man appear in Pop’s shabby apartment to make an offer early on. But from there Speedy is more interested in stringing together gags based on the various jobs its hero tries and fails to hold down through a combination of his baseball obsession and plain bad luck.
Best of all is the sequence where Speedy tries his luck as a cabbie and rockets two detectives (who, of course, don’t pay and are never around to pull rank on the traffic cops who keep ticketing him) through the free-for-all of New York traffic at the dawn of the automobile age. And then his idol Babe Ruth asks for a ride to Yankee Stadium, leading to an even more spectacular setpiece of Lloyd obliviously weaving through one near miss after another. If Amelie hated old movies where drivers never watch the road, she’d loathe this one, where Speedy is so starstruck he spends the whole time with his eyes glued to the backseat and never sees how many times he nearly dies in a fireball, no matter how many times the Bambino — a surprisingly talented straight man, at least in intertitles — snarks at him about it. If you’re not laughing your ass off at this scene, it might be because you’re too busy picking your jaw up off the floor.