The Look #4: Harold and Sybil get camera-shy


At the end of Harold Lloyd’s BUMPING INTO BROADWAY, previously discussed on Sunday, Harold essays a trope that would become quite familiar, and may have been old even in 1919, I’m not sure. All set to go into his final fadeout clinch with Bebe Daniels, Harold and his girl suddenly seems to notice us watching. He thoughtfully repositions a nearby screen to conceal the snog, but then notices that the screen had been hiding a few of the cops who have been chasing him for most of the last reel. Thoughtfully, he replaces the screen, thus deactivating the policemen like budgies whose cage has been covered, then he lifts up a rug and holds it before himself and Bebe as a sort of curtain.


So overwhelming is the act of kissing Bebe, however, that Harold drops the rug, and we fade out on the traditional clinch, save for the fact that Harold’s hand is held high as if still holding the rug. He THINKS he’s achieved some privacy, but like the vengeful camera which pursues Buster Keaton in Beckett’s FILM, our gaze is insatiable.


A year later, and Buster is doing a variation on this joke in ONE WEEK. It’s a famous shot: leading lady Sybil Seely drops the soap while bathing, and notices the camera’s presence just as she is about to retrieve it. The friendly cameraman puts his hand over the lens, and Sybil is able to grab her bar and gives a grateful grin to the operator as she lowers herself back into the water, modesty more or less preserved.

Keaton’s gag is bolder than Lloyd’s, firstly because it happens in the middle of the film. I think there’s a kind of understanding that endings are allowed to be a bit self-referential, since the audience is about to be forcefully confronted with the fact that what they’ve been watching was, in fact, a film, when the lights come up. Of course we never wholly forget this anyway, but jokes about our shared, willed illusion are easier to justify if placed at the end so they don’t really disrupt the film’s reality.

(Under the right circumstances, a comedy’s ending can be allowed to trash everything that went before, and nobody minds. Surely it was screenwriter Frank Tashlin who was responsible for the ending of the Bob Hope movie THE PALEFACE, in which leading lady Jane Russell is dragged off by wild horses, prompting Bob to turn to us and remark, “What were you expecting, a happy ending?”)


The Keaton gag goes further than the Lloyd one also by using the camera lens as prop. Lloyd admits there’s an audience, but Keaton admits there’s a camera and a cameraman who allow that audience to see the action, and who can choose to prevent it. The shameless Sybil doesn’t, apparently, mind being seen naked by the cameraman, but she’s not getting them out for the viewing public.


The Complete BUSTER KEATON Short Films 1917-1923 (Masters of Cinema) (Blu-ray)

5 Responses to “The Look #4: Harold and Sybil get camera-shy”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    That “Well, what did you expect?” response also comes, of course, at the end of Chuck Jones’ WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957). Bugs and Jane Russell … I wonder which one’s the shocker and which confirms expectations?

  2. It was claimed that Tashlin went to movies with a notebook when he was a cartoonist, jotting down gags, something he denied. But maybe Chuck Jones noted down some of Tahslin’s gags…

    See earlier Harold Lloyd post comments: the cross-fertilisation of comics, all stealing from each other, was part of the liveliness of the scene.

  3. David, thanks for the nice piece on “The Second Civil War” on MUBI, but you seem to have confused Joanna Pakula (who’s not in it) with Joanna Cassidy (who is). Likewise Randy Quaid (who’s not in it) with Beau Bridges (who won an Emmy for it). Still, it’s always nice to see such an unknown movie get some attention.

  4. There’s one where Fatty Arbuckle is about to change clothes, then gestures to the cameraman to tilt upwards a bit so we don’t see Fatty’s pants removed. Walter Kerr wrote it up in “Silent Clowns.”

    The broad 1950s parody “Top Secret” had the camera pan to a fireplace with blazing fire as lovemaking was about to violate the code. When the lovers rolled back into frame the camera panned to a SECOND fireplace with blazing fire in the same room.

    “Tom Jones” had Albert Finney increasingly tempted by the wench following him. He finally grinned at the camera and draped a hankie over the lens.

    There are a few films that invert the idea, with comics trying to prevent the camera from leaving them:
    — I think it’s “Road to Bali” that closes with Crosby walking off with two girls, and Hope angrily pushing the “THE END” optical title out of frame. He’s demanding the movie continue until he can get a girl.
    — “Pardners”, a western comedy, lets Martin & Lewis blast the “THE END” title with their six-guns, in order to give an awkward little thank you to their fans. Not as effective as Hope desperately seeking a few more moments to at least get a clinch.

    Jerry Lewis ends “The Patsy” by falling off a hotel balcony, repeating a gag from early in the film. As the heroine reacts, Jerry pops up, out of character. He assure her it’s just a movie and walks off the set and out of the sound stage with her. “The Patsy”, by the way, is yet another variation of Jerry The Natural Genius: A team of pros try to make a star out of him, but he becomes a beloved comedian only after being accidentally caught by a live TV camera. So maybe the ending was meant to drive home the message?

  5. Drive it home, or debunk it? Always hard to tell with Jer. His sincerity is so emphatic, it’s less convincing than his play-acting.

    Joe, I don’t know where my mind was when I compiled the cast list: possibly blown by the excellence of the ensemble. Fixed it now. Oh for an editor with time to check these things.

    I know the difference between the Bridges and Quaid siblings, honest, but have I *ever* actually known one Joanna from another, or did I just think “Oh, I like her!” whenever either showed up?

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