The Sunday Intertitle: Switchboards and Switchbacks

Harold Lloyd’s Coney Island comedy NUMBER PLEASE is very good, but not quite great. It uses the classic Lloyd formula of “islands” — comic set-pieces joined by narrative chains, corresponding to Kubrick’s demand of his writers: “Just give me six non-submersible units.” Filmmaking as pontoon bridge.

Here, the joins are logical enough but the big moments still feel like they COULD be in other films. And Harold’s pushy go-getter on the make isn’t as sympathetic as his best roles, though his goal is romance and that OUGHT to be likable. The world loves a lover.


No comment.

The big scene is a protracted torture by telephone where Harold tries to get mama’s consent to date the pretty daughter, but getting past the inept switchboard operator actually takes longer than his rival’s journey overland to achieve the same goal. One can certainly identify, even if the switchboard operator of yore has gone the way of the rumble seat.

I feel that, even if we no longer require switchboard operators in our jet-age, push-button modern world of fax machines, Viewmasters and Spirographs, there should still be SOME job description that requires people to wear little trumpets on their chests. Maybe head of state?

Oh, and there’s this lovely image ~


3 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Switchboards and Switchbacks”

  1. I enjoyed that, heaps!

  2. Fun, isn’t it? And, being more charitable, maybe the plot’s regular self-reinventions add variety and unpreditcability and aren’t a problem at all…

  3. bensondonald Says:

    A very frequent comedy plot: An ordinary or even impoverished male seeking a mate from a higher caste. The girl may have to be impressed or won over, or perhaps she gives him an specific goal. More often the lady is willing but her keepers disapprove (which allows the girl to be on his side, and ergo more likable).

    If the mother is the main obstacle, she’s usually angling for a nobleman or tycoon destined to be exposed as a fraud or a jerk. If it’s the father — frequently the hero’s employer and a VERY direct superior — he sets a baseline of success and/or manliness for the comedian to attain; or the comedian saves the father’s wealth and the daughter becomes a reward. Sometimes a rich male will fall for less-affluent female, but there he’s still obliged to prove himself as quality breeding stock (“Battling Butler” and “Why Worry?”).

    In some cases the girl’s superior value is due to market forces: a competitor is driving up the price. Shorts usually pit the hero against a rival who is, at the very least, bigger. In “The Cameraman”, the receptionist is slightly better off than Buster (down to a dime bank after buying a camera), but he’s up against the handsome and successful newsreel ace. In “The Gold Rush” the dance hall girl is above Charlie because of local supply and demand.

    Harold Lloyd’s girls are often peers, but if there isn’t a rival there’s still a need to prove worthiness. In “Safety Last” he promised to Make Good, and while she doesn’t seem the sort to hold him to it he certainly holds himself to it. “Why Worry” is about turning from a sickly specimen to a robust male ready for mating (and indeed ends with him as a good provider for his newborn heir).

    In the shorts it’s often reduced to Darwinian essentials. Must be strong to defeat rivals for woman, or to protect goods of woman’s father. Must be rich to feed woman, and/or prove worthy of father’s goods (woman included). Then woman and clan grant reproductive privilege.

    There are exceptions to be sure. In “The Freshman” Harold has the girl’s affection almost from the get-go; it’s everybody else’s he craves (and gets, not learning anything). In “Steamboat Bill Jr.” the struggle is for Dad’s approval. “Modern Times” focuses on Charlie just surviving; Paulette is simply a kindred spirit with the same need. Now and again the comedian is married or has a steady girl who must be pacified in some way, or exists to react to his follies. But lowly seeking highborn was an old reliable long before movies existed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: