A number of personal, “tone-poem” slice-of-life films were made at the tail end of the silent era. The ones often mentioned are titles like Sunrise (1927), The Crowd (1928) and Lonesome (1928). Even von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928) has a very thin plot, and is almost a meditation on the courtship of his and Fay Wray’s characters. Something similar happened in slapstick comedy films.
In “American Silent Film”, William K. Everson posits that these more personal films happened because studio brass were so preoccupied with the conundrum of talking pictures’ potentially upending production and distribution. Certainly possible or even probable, but clearly there was something in the silent filmmaking zeitgeist that saw this type of film happen. Even Harry Langdon ventured into this territory, making an expressive, humanity-statement picture like Three’s A Crowd (1927).
Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) is more than a film about competing riverboats and a windstorm. Walter Kerr held off showing it to me when I was growing up, running the other Keaton features first, claiming “it takes two reels before it gets off the ground”. Which is true. Those two reels, however, are about the father-son relationship between Steamboat Bills senior and junior, something that permeates the rest of the film, along with the usual getting-the-girl plot and physically-amazing sight gags.
Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) also has the standard plot devices, but is also a meta (if I may use that expression on television) exploration on what it means to be funny.
Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928) fits into this category, although without meditating on a factor of the human equation. It’s precisely this aspect of the picture that has fascinated me. Instead of an overt statement about what it means to be alive, to be in love, or what family means, Speedy holds together purely because of the relationship between Lloyd and the audience watching the film.
I’ve first encountered this over many screenings of Safety Last (1923), where it became clear to me that the editing structure and rhythms were geared toward the audiences’ reactions. Building and building, tension and release followed by tension and release. At the point the mouse goes up Lloyd’s trouser leg, audiences have never failed to scream at this gag.
By the time Speedy was made, Lloyd and his team had this roller-coaster structuring of the films down to a science. For Heaven’s Sake (1926) may have a few plot holes, but it’s got the most belly laughs packed into 6 reels of any silent I play for.
Speedy has the brazen audacity to completely dispense with the film’s plot. For 38 minutes, in the middle of the film’s 85 minutes of total screen time. That’s right…45% of the film, its middle section, is a series of gag sequences. 3½ reels of gags about Harold trying to get a job. A job which has almost nothing to do with the film’s main plot of saving The Girl’s father’s horse-drawn streetcar.
Any other film would sag mightily if the plot was dispensed with for nearly half of the film’s running time.
And then — get this — when the plot reappears, the film ends…twice. Again, under any other circumstances, this would be a detriment, but it totally works here. People love Speedy,and audiences eat it up; its popularity and frequency of screenings have eclipsed those of The Freshman (1925).
Here’s the 3-act structure of Speedy in a nutshell: 17 minutes of plot and gags establishing the main conflict, 38 minutes of just gags with no core connection to the overall plot, then 30 minutes of plot and gags where the conflict is resolved, and then re-resolved after a minor plot twist.
What I think Lloyd and his gag writers, directors and editors may have managed to do if replicate the connection-with-the-audience factor that is a key element of what Clown is all about — which I’ve discussed here — which is usually only possible in live performance. While I doubt this was what they set out to do, Harold & Co. made that audience manipulation work for them with film. It’s the reason his pictures play brilliantly with an audience and don’t quite have the same reaction when watched alone.