by Allan Fish
(US 1920 29m) DVD1/2
How to commit suicide
p Hal Roach d Fred C.Newmeyer w Sam Taylor, H.M.Walker story Hal Roach, Sam Taylor ph Walter Lundin ed Thomas J.Crizer m Robert Israel
Harold Lloyd (the boy), Mildred Davis (the girl), Mark Jones (acrobat), Roy Brooks (the other fellow), Charles Stevenson (cop),
There’s an immortal shot of Harold Lloyd that sticks in my mind more than any other. In actual fact, it’s not a shot at all, but a production still. I first remember seeing it on the cover of the 6th edition of the Halliwell Film Guide in about 1988, and it shows Lloyd, legs wide apart, hands out in front of him as if he’s trying to stop an oncoming car, bespectacled eyes betraying a look of sheer terror. But because just the figure of Lloyd was shown, one would be forgiven for thinking that he was trying to stop a car. In reality, it’s an oncoming girder on a crane from the top of an incomplete skyscraper. Adding this vital component finally not only makes sense of the still, but shows how it could only have been Lloyd.
Even so, Lloyd is generally not remembered for his shorts today. Most would recognise that Chaplin, Keaton, Fields and Laurel and Hardy made great shorts (indeed, the latter duo were even better in the shorter format), but rarely mention Lloyd’s earlier gag-fests. The reason for this is simply one of availability, as his shorts are very rarely seen, which made their inclusion in the magnificent US DVD box set, authorised by his estate, all the more welcome. And though there are several shorts that could be chosen – including Among Those Present and High and Dizzy, it’s this 1920 masterpiece that gets my vote, if for no other reason than it represents Lloyd’s appeal as perfectly as one could hope for.
Lloyd plays a worker in an office building who lives merely to exchange tokens of love with the girl in the next door office, secretary to a failing osteopath. Their happiness is interrupted by the news that the girl is being let go due to lack of business and it’s down to Lloyd to drum up business for her employer. Unfortunately, despite his efforts, Lloyd gets the wrong end of the stick when he sees his beloved hugging another man and decides to commit suicide. Several failed attempts result in him being put in a situation from which he does remarkably well to extricate himself.
From even before we see a single shot of footage, we realise we are in Lloyd territory, with the succinct caption “a youth of twenty-one, a maid of eighteen; Shakespeare couldn’t have asked for more.” There are gags and entire sequences here whose ingenious choreography is something to behold. Just examine the scene where he tries to take his own life; first trying to take poison, but spilling the glass writing a suicide note, then trying to stab himself, but finding that it would hurt too much, then failing to gas himself, and finally trying to shoot himself by proxy as he’s too scared to pull the trigger. It’s this final attempt that leads, quite brilliantly, into the celebrated finale, as a hoisted girder swings into his office, picks up Lloyd and his chair together and pulls him out of the window after he believes he’s been shot (in actuality, a bulb has fallen to the floor). Lloyd even momentarily believes himself to be in paradise as he opens his eyes and sees a statue of an angel before him and a harp recital nearby. Only then he looks down and finds himself looking at what Harry Lime later referred to as “those dots.” Cue Lloyd’s genius as a daredevil physical comedian. (Note his Mickey Mouse like gloves here, worn to disguise his having the thumb and forefinger of his right hand blasted off by a stunt bomb that exploded a year earlier.) His balance and comic timing as he teeters on the girder structure is quite incredible, his refusal to use a stunt double trademark insanity, but it’s all part of why we root for him. A sense of danger brings out a sense of hysterical laughter, and Lloyd exploited that to the full. It may be untypical of the short comedy in that it’s a three- as opposed to two-reeler, but it’s not a moment too long. To paraphrase his own suicide letter, “our lives would be like a hollow sepulchre without Lloyd.”