The Sunday Intertitle: Gas-s-s-s Again

You don’t expect the disturbing from Harold Lloyd, the sunniest of the great silent comedians. The darkest business I knew of before watching RING UP THE CURTAIN was the menacing hobo in GRANDMA’S BOY, played by Dick Sutherland with considerable subhuman meanness. Critic Walter Kerr actually identified Lloyd’s unproblematic outlook as a problem: he risked blandness by being so All-American and nice and positive. The glasses helped suggest vulnerability, but as Kerr says, Keaton and Chaplin carried a shadow within them. So to avoid things getting too comfy, Lloyd heaped troubles on his character: hence those tall buildings.

RING UP THE CURTAIN is an early knockabout, when Lloyd hasn’t fully determined the parameters of his character or approach, I’d say: there was considerable flexibility in what Lloyd could embody (city swell or country boy) but he wasn’t generally loutish. In this one, he’s dressed all droog-like as a stage-hand, knocking over little people left right and centre. He tramples a dwarf, like Mr. Hyde carelessly knocking down that urchiness. There’s a romance (with Bebe Daniels) but it’s pursued with competitive toughness (Lloyd is often fiercely competitive, even later), which certainly doesn’t prepare you for him KILLING HIMSELF at the end.

Lloyd could do gags about attempted suicide and make that work fine with his persona, as did Keaton. Buster even succeeds at the end of COPS, which is a little dark and disturbing even for him. But in that case, the situation is comic and the neat structure establishes some kind of framework of APPROPRIATENESS. The Lloyd ending is just one of those random “how do we finish it?” jobs, with somebody saying, “Would it be funny if…?” and nobody else thinking of a better idea that week.

But really, Harold (and producer Hal Roach and director Alf Goulding), having your hero put his mouth to the gas nozzle and asphyxiate himself is not a socko finish.

4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Gas-s-s-s Again”

  1. About nine minutes into “Haunted Spooks” (1920), Lloyd makes a series of suicide attempts. They come at a point where you know perfectly well he’s going to fail; the first involves a gun which we already know is a toy.

    Filming was interrupted by his near-fatal bomb accident. One wonders if there was a bomb gag that was consequently left out (would explain their presence for publicity photos).

  2. I was convinced this one featured the car headlights in a tunnel that turn out to be two motorcycles, also used by Keaton. But maybe only ever Keaton did that? I had it down as a repeat, possibly due to a gagman recycling earlier hits.

  3. Charley Chase used it in a one-reeler, but not as a suicide. He’s on the street at night. Two lights approach, and he reacts in terror. Motorcycles. Relieved, he just smiles as two more lights approach. He gets run over, which doesn’t so much hurt him as surprise him.

    Meanwhile, suicide gags from … Mickey Mouse?

  4. Well, Chase was also at Roach so at least it’s in-house, nearly self-plagiarism.

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