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.