American silent cinema isn’t my forte. I’ve seen a couple of Chaplin’s films, but only the hybrid Modern Times (1936) and the sound era The Great Dictator (1940). More than the physical and visual comedy, what appeals to me about the silent era are the extraordinary colour works of Lang, Murnau and Wiene, or the ideologically driven works of Vertov and Eisenstein, which remain as artistic masterpieces to this day. Many of the silent comedies are just like the fairground amusements of Coney Island – an amusement and distraction, holding little artistic value. It’s those sequences on Criterion’s YouTube page (and on its cover) which sold me on the film – but they make up very little of its running time.
Its appeal to the 1920s generation, like a cameo from Babe Ruth, mean very little to me, and probably don’t to the people of today either, besides hardcore baseball fanatics, or academics charting the history of celebrity cameos. I assumed Babe was a glamorous actress until a intertitle introduced him, the next shot depicting him signing for orphaned kids.
I came into this film under a misapprehension – the artwork to Criterion’s release seems to sell the film as a romantic comedy. But the film already establishes Speedy and Jane as an existing unit, with the concern being her Pop – who clearly doesn’t have many years left on him – a more adult concern than a youthful romance. Through the physical comedy of the role (given the lack of sound or spoken dialogue), Lloyd’s character demands a presence that never leaves the film – he abounds personality.
Yet Jane has very little to her – she’s a beautiful woman, in a wonderful outfit, concerned about Pops and shares the odd cute moment with Speedy. This is the extent of her character, as the sole representative of the dominant female character, besides the odd angry old lady who misinterprets Speedy as a sexual predator thanks to a crab in his pocket who pinches bottoms. What I love about Chaplin’s Tramp in Modern Times is the romantic aspect – approaching romance from a more idealised, yet still endearing, perspective of the 1930s, enshrining heteronormativity and the nuclear family.
Let it be said – Speedy is a jerk. He risks lost luggage, trips people up, creates fights between people on the subway for his own personal amusement, runs away from law enforcement, steals horses. He drives so hazardously that rarely do we feel sorry for how much of an accidental fool he is. He’s presented as the hero, yet he’s also a dick.
But the film doesn’t feel as throwaway as I expected – there’s still a general sense of continuity, with a recurring dog (played by King Tut) on Coney Island; when Speedy ruins his jacket with stripes from a wet paint fence, he unwittingly keeps his jacket as is for the remainder of the trip. Later, a policeman warns him he’d give him stripes on his front as well.
As Bruce Goldstein’s documentary on the Blu-ray explores, one of the most important aspects of the film is its production of in NYC, preserving the city in 1927 for future generations. Although large chunks of it were shot in LA or on soundstages, filming in the city itself does not happen often enough. It’s still used sparingly, in Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), or Sidney Lumet’s efforts to establish a greater production base there in the 1960s or 70s, or today, where even Spider-Man films, which almost rely upon the character and the visual aesthetic of the city, too often use substitute cities as opposed to the real location. Shooting in NYC is difficult with crowds and expensive with budgets.
It’s truly a time capsule: the conceit of the film is around the last operated horse drawn carriage; its archnemesis is a gang of roughnecked bully boys (giving me flashbacks to the enemies of Action Comics (1938) and Captain America Comics (1941) in the 1930s and 40s); elderly Civil War veterans join Speedy in their defence of pop’s carriage; inter-connected local communities in Greenwich Village, including a Chinese shopkeeper, advise each other that there might be rain, based on Speedy’s hearsay; fairground rides are far too dangerous to pass muster in the 21st century; old automobiles; going to a tailors to repair broken pants; how hilarious it is that Speedy, out of work, can apply for a job as a taxi driver without a resume, having never learned how to drive, and start the job on the same day – no training required. Today, he may even need a degree to get it. In Goldstein’s documentary, he contrasts the New York of 1927 and 2015. Safe to say, they look like two entirely different cities.
The villain of the film is a tycoon, who wants to create a conglomerate railway, and is stopped by ridiculous clauses (once every 24 hours, really, because I mean who cares about Sundays or sick days). The most heroic thing Speedy does in the film is force Pops out of the business deal, altering the $10,000 business deal to a ridiculous $70k figure. (Until of course he agrees upon a larger deal at the film’s conclusion.) Pops represents the generation of the Civil War (his horse-driven carriage is of historical and social interest, and demands preservation), the film’s premise is the survival of history in the face of modernity. It’s hilarious when we think that today, Pops would be the old, established business, trusted by the local community, bought out by Rupert Murdoch who wants to radically alter how it operates.
Although I won’t commend the cinematography of the entire film, there’s still a pretty great visual aesthetic – the most important aspect of a film entirely reliant (besides the score, which occasionally interjects with sound effects) on the visual.
Seeing Luna Park shot by night is enchanting. The footage of Speedy driving through the city in a madcap way feels exciting – and is entirely authentic. The huge crowds of people, caught in a violent city gang war between baseball players and local people, burning hot irons and baseball bats involved, is a sight to behold. There’s a spectacle to this film, although perhaps not as thrilling or iconic as Lloyd’s clocktower stunt in Safety Last! (1923) – but it never elevates far above that. There’s little romantic charm or endearment to make the film as fun as it could be.