The Sunday Intertitle: Harold Lloyd be thy name

I read about FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, a Harold Lloyd vehicle directed by the skilled Sam Taylor (EXIT SMILING) over at Observations of Film Art, where my all-time favourite annual event takes place — Kristin Thompson’s annual look back at the cinema of ninety years ago (with a modest assist from David Bordwell).

FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, plotwise, is a nothing, predicated on a premise that doesn’t seem to have anything to it. Harold Manners, millionaire, funds a mission in the slums by mistake, but then falls in love with the daughter of the founder. He has some misadventures helping with the mission, then his rich buddies kidnap him to stop him marrying the poor girl, there’s a chase and a happy ending. Pretty flimsy stuff — but sufficiently solid to attach Lloyd’s “islands” — his comic set-pieces. (Kubrick spoke of “non-submersible units” by which I take him to mean something similar, but with fewer pratfalls. Military enthusiast that he was, Kubrick used the pontoon bridge as his metaphor.)

The pun in this intertitle is so good, the whole movie may have been built around it. Which would account for the gossamer-thin plot. But that doesn’t matter, as the set-pieces are SO good.

Harold’s character is interesting — rather than being a boy next door, he’s a touch feckless and over-privileged, but this doesn’t make him unsympathetic. It makes him superhuman. Most Lloyd movies show him struggling to gain mastery over some hazardous situation, with our hero being handicapped by shyness or gentility which he has to overcome. Here, Lloyd’s victories are mainly effortless until the last act, when he gets a good work-out.

To round up a congregation for the new mission, Harold provokes fights with all the neighbourhood roughnecks so they’ll chase him into the building. The action is fast, furious, inventive and hilarious, and all the time we’re wondering what he’ll do with them when he gets them indoors. It turns out that he has no plan at all, and is rescued by the timely arrival of the police, which is a little disappointing but leads us into the next amusing situation.

(The lead yegg is Noah Young, whose praises I’ve been singing lately. A peerless plug-ugly.)

The climactic rescue is in itself easy enough, but Harold’s rescuers — Young and his gang, now allies — are all smashed out of their faces, and Harold’s new task is to get them to the church on time without them getting lost, arrested or killed. The sozzled bozos are incapable of sitting still, and rounding them up becomes an extended piece of Sisyphean slapstick eventually accelerating into a hair-raising sequence on a runaway bus.

Walter Kerr observes that, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd had no shadow about him, he seems always equipped for happiness should it come along — so to be interesting, he has to stack the deck against himself and pile on colossal odds against his victory. This pleasing, laid-back romp mainly eschews this until the end, letting us simply watch a guy lead a charmed life, much of the comedy coming from his blithe unawareness of how damned lucky he is.



2 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Harold Lloyd be thy name”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    A few other slum missions in pop culture:
    — Mission girl Edna reforms Charlie in “Easy Street”.
    — In “Free to Love”, Clara Bow is the adopted daughter of the judge who unjustly convicted her (an elaborate set up mostly forgotten after the first reel); she falls in love with a young vicar (son of the judge’s rich friend) and helps run his mission.
    — “She Done Him Wrong” gives Mae West a Salvation Army man to tempt; he turns out to be an undercover (heh) man but no less the moralist for it.
    — “Guys and Dolls” offers a very thinly disguised Salvation Army (“Save-A-Soul Mission”).
    — “Major Barbara” is a head-on philosophical assault on the Salvation Army, which — in my time, at least — doesn’t seem to bear a grudge. I’ve seen stage productions where the real Salvation Army provided uniforms.

    Roaming Salvation Army bands and girls with tambourines are stock items in old movie slums and urban Christmas stories. “Fatal Glass of Beer” has one such girl who fells a sinner “with a kick she learned before she was saved”. Somewhat later, borrowing from Lloyd, Mr. Bean took up the collection for a Salvation Army band and reaped a jewel thief’s swag. More often, the small band playing under a streetlight simply underscores a character’s despair as he walks by.

    These soul-saving efforts are treated with varying degrees of respect. With a character like Chaplin’s, the very idea of uplift is comical (he shows his sincerity by returning the collection box). In “Free to Love”, the mission draws picturesque peasants grateful for their betters’ efforts. “Guys and Dolls” pits the well-meaning reformers’ naivete against the affable cynicism of the gamblers. The play ends with ultimate cynic Sky Masterson in mission uniform; he preaches in language the gamblers understand. The movie closes with a fantasy wedding that puts Stubby Kaye in uniform instead. At worst, missions are presented as places where the poor are forced to sit through hard-sell sermons before the free soup.

  2. Sullivan’s Travels certainly makes the mission seem like part of the overall misery of poverty rather than an alleviation of it.

    Easy Street seems like the big influence here, with the kind of dizzy millionaire Keaton played in The Navigator inserted for contrast, and given a good shot of Lloydian pep.

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