Stars: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, Brooks Benedict, Babe Ruth | Written by John Grey, Lex Neal & Howard Emmett Rogers | Directed by Ted Wilde
One of the three giants of silent cinema in Hollywood (the others were Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton), Harold Lloyd is well-known for his impressive stunt work (albeit overshadowed somewhat by Keaton’s own feats). There aren’t so many feats of physical daring in Speedy, Lloyd’s final silent picture, but there are plenty of opportunities to witness the actor’s not insignificant acting abilities. In a medium and genre known and often derided for its mugging, ostentatious performances, Lloyd’s face could convey nuanced shifts in tone. This is perfect for a low-stakes comedy like Speedy, during which a good chunk of screentime is dedicated to a day out at Coney Island, as it’s the little things that stand out.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t big things in the movie. We’re introduced to New York City, home of Lloyd’s affable job-loser Harold “Speedy” Swift, via wry title cards and bustling street scenes that inform the audience just how much potential there is for chaos ahead. Speedy is first found working as a soda-jerk “within phoning distance” from Yankee Stadium so that he can find out his beloved team’s score in almost real-time. A charming sequence sees him catching pitched oranges in a catcher’s mitt, rapidly taking drinks orders and relaying the score to the cooks in the back via an inventive use of pastries.
Unfortunately Speedy gets fired not long after this innocent bunking and has to find another job, a recurring motif in the film. (He’ll later take on the role of cab driver, ferrying around real-life baseball icon Babe Ruth while paying zero attention to traffic.) Returning home to his beloved Jane (the delightful Ann Christy in one of her few feature-length roles) and her father Pop (Bert Woodruff), Speedy discovers that the old man’s antiquated horse-and-tram business is in danger of being shut down by big-money bullies. The plot is largely forgotten until the last reel of the film, making Speedy more a series of comic vignettes than a proper narrative, but it’s just as entertaining today as it was in 1928, so there’s no harm in that.
Speedy delights with its knockabout comedy and Lloyd’s unquenchable determination, but it also serves as a marvellous document of New York in the 1920s – before the Empire State Building was even built. Much of the shooting was done on location, except for a crowded subway sequence which would likely have seen much more sweat on the brows of its many travelers. Speedy is a sweetly nostalgic confection lifted by Lloyd’s inimitable, glasses-wearing presence, and a fitting swansong for a medium already reaching into the past as the future came roaring into view.
Supplements: The Criterion Blu-ray includes a compelling and informative commentary by film historians who discuss life in early 20th-century New York, how Lloyd sneaked an almost shocking display of his middle finger past censors and the context of the actor’s career at the time, along with another NYC-set short.
Speedy is out now from the recently-released UK Criterion Collection.