For whatever reason, I've never been able to connect to the films of Harold Lloyd quite as strongly as I've been able to connect to the films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In an essay penned for the new Criterion Collection edition of Speedy (Lloyd's final silent film), film historian Phillip Lopate puts his finger on it: “Chaplin flirted perennially with pathos, Keaton with melancholy, while Lloyd went his merry way, positive thinking and triumphant.” That's exactly it: Harold Lloyd's characters never seem to struggle with anything resembling genuine pain or sorrow. Sure, they have minor setbacks and frustrations and disappointments, but these are always mere bumps in the road on the path to a happy ending. You don't get as invested in seeing him attain a happy ending because there's never really any doubt (on his part or ours) that he'll earn it.
Still, there's no denying that Lloyd was a considerable talent with his own set of unique strengths, and Speedy is an awfully fine showcase for the iconic silent comedian's gifts. The title refers to the main character's name, but it might as well be referring to the film's pace: this is a flick filled to the brim with manic chase scenes, as one sequence after another finds Lloyd frantically working his way through the bustling streets of pre-depression New York City for one urgent reason or another. Sometimes he's driving a car, sometimes he's driving a horse-drawn carriage, sometimes he's driving a car-drawn carriage (just wait) and sometimes he's running, but he's always in a hurry to get somewhere. Lloyd movies usually have a fairly manic quality, but this one is amusingly relentless even by his standards.
The story begins with Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), a good-natured old fellow who runs the last horse-drawn trolley in New York City. The railroad company is planning to organize a merger of all the city's streetcar services, but they can't do so unless Pop agrees to sell. However, Pop isn't eager to give up his profession, and continually demands a steep price. Angered by Pop's stubborn negotiating techniques, the railroad decides they're going to try to force him out of business. It seems that Pop's contract with the city says that the trolley is only allowed to stay in business if it runs at least once every 24 hours. So, the railroad employs some hired goons to steal the trolley, hide it somewhere and render Pop's business license null and void. Thankfully, good-hearted young Speedy (Lloyd) – who just so happens to be in a serious romantic relationship with Pop's granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy) – gets wind of this sinister plot, and begins working on a plan to stop the railroad from stealing the trolley.
That's more or less the narrative spine of Speedy, but there are a lot of detours along the way, including a look at Speedy's ill-fated job as a soda jerk, a delightfully silly trip to Coney Island in which Speedy struggles to keep his new suit clean and an entertaining encounter with Babe Ruth (playing himself and mugging for the camera with amusing enthusiasm) during Speedy's brief stint as a cab driver. The film's gag-a-minute pace never lets up, as Lloyd and director Ted Wilde go for every silly joke they can get their hands on. At first it all seems a little haphazardly constructed (here's a bit involving a hungry dog, here's a bit involving a cranky cop, here's a bit involving some detectives), but towards the end, the film begins to pull a surprisingly vast number of its assorted comic threads together in a grand finale of mayhem (which kicks off with an enjoyably ridiculous street fight involving dozens of elderly Civil War veterans).
The film is now accompanied by a fine original score from composer Carl Davis, whose consistently tuneful, upbeat music (using a variation on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as its main theme – a nod to Speedy's love of baseball) suits the film's chipper tone. It's always a treat to hear Davis' musical voice applied to a silent classic – no other living film composer has such strong instincts when it comes to drawing out the exact feeling a silent film is aiming for.
Lloyd continued working in Hollywood for a couple of decades after the silent era ended. Unlike a lot of silent stars, he actually managed to find some success in the sound era (particularly in the late '20s and early '30s). Even so, as the Great Depression wore on, Lloyd's cheerful, optimistic persona began to fall out of fashion. He was a little-known figure for large portions of the 20th century, being happily “rediscovered” every couple of decades when his films were finally shown again. Thankfully, it seems that he has finally carved out a place for himself in the realm of cinephilia – if not as an equal to Chaplin or Keaton, than as an honorable bronze medalist. Speedy finds Lloyd departing the silent era at the top of his form; risking his neck in a host of outlandish stunts and maintaining that unflappable can-do spirit from start to finish.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 86 minutes
Release Year: 1928