Until a few weeks ago, the only Harold Lloyd films I’d seen were his signature Safety Last with its famous building-climbing set-piece, and The Freshman, which I cannot, at this point, separate in my mind from Keaton’s College. Lloyd is one of the Big Three when it comes to silent comedians, but in terms of the popular consciousness, he still falls well below Chaplin and Keaton, and I was content with his third-wheel position based on what I’d seen. After a recent double-feature at Cinefamily, I was primed to change my view on that, and Girl Shy clenched it. Lloyd is every bit as worthy a giant of silent comedy as either of his rivals. They’re all in a dead heat as far as I’m concerned.
Lloyd’s essential persona is a normal, slightly nerdy guy who deals with problems as they come along, usually involved with trying to get a girl. He has neither Chaplin’s downtrodden acceptance nor Keaton’s stoic stubbornness in the face of the outrageous situations that befall him, but instead shows his exasperation and yet continues to push through toward his goal. In Girl Shy, his own worst enemy for much of the film is himself, and his irrational fear of women that causes him to be flustered and stutter uncontrollably whenever a girl comes near him. It doesn’t help matters that he’s adorable and girls tend to flirt with him, even to the point of tearing their stockings so he can fix them (he’s the tailor’s son in a small town).
However, he shows quite another side, in fantasy at least, as he writes a book from the point of view of a womanizer, explaining in each chapter (and dramatized on screen for our delight) how to win different types of women – the vamp, the flapper, etc. While taking the finished book to a publisher in the city, he helps a girl (regular Lloyd costar Jobyna Ralston, who I kind of have a girlcrush on right now) hide her dog from the train conductor and loses his stutter completely as he gets wound up telling her about his book. A match made in heaven, except his lack of money (compared to her privileged background) leads him to convince her he doesn’t care about her.
It eventually leads to an absolutely incredible chase from town to city when he discovers she’s about to marry someone else, using every mode of conveyance possible. This is the big set-piece of the film, and like the building climbing in Safety Last, it basically takes up the last third of the film or so. This is more akin to Keaton’s fantastic driver-less motorcycle chase in Sherlock Jr, though, except Lloyd constantly changes from car to car to horse to carriage to streetcar and everything else you could possible ride in the 1920s. It’s one of the most thrilling sequences I’ve ever seen. But that’s true of many silent comedy set-pieces. What sets Girl Shy apart is how endearing and genuine the rest of the film is; my major complaint against Safety Last is that no matter how much I love the last part (and I do), the rest of the film doesn’t do a lot for me.
The screening was accompanied by the Robert Israel Orchestra, who does most of the scores TCM commissions for the silent films they play. It was jazzy and very ’20s in feel, and worked perfectly with the film. I don’t always mind more avant-grade or unusual approaches to silent film music – the bombastic score played with Metropolis two years ago was awesome – but for this, the score we heard was exactly right. The screening wasn’t packed out, but it was a good crowd, and the gasps and cheers as Lloyd careened his way through the streets reminded me just how inadequate it is to watch silent films at home alone. The audience is half the fun, and that was truly the case here. For me, this was the best screening of the festival, and easily my favorite new-to-me film.
Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Written by: Sam Taylor, Ted Wilde & Tim Whelan (story), Thomas J. Gray (titles)
Producer: Harold Lloyd
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Richard Daniels, Carlton Griffith
Year of Release: 1924
Running Time: 80 min.
TCMFest Film Guide
Flickchart (formerly unranked; now #368 out of 2892)
the recovering academic