Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer
Harold Lloyd; Mildred Davis; Anna Townsend; Charles Stevenson; Dick Sutherland; Noah Young
Grandma’s Boy (1922)
Harold Lloyd’s second feature film, Grandma’s Boy, was one of the most important and influential screen comedies to come out of Hollywood. It was Lloyd’s first attempt at creating a comedy which was not just a collection of gags, but instead a comedy where the humor was generated from the characters and the situations in which they found themselves. If Chaplin’s The Kid was the prototype of a comedy that included extensive dramatic scenes, Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy was the blueprint, the film that reinforced Chaplin’s model, and influenced all other comedians and their transitions to feature length comedies. That’s perhaps a lot of weight for a film that runs under an hour, but Grandma’s Boy can take it, for it’s as funny and heartfelt today as it was back in the early twenties.
Lloyd plays the Boy, a coward since he was young who can’t even stand up to the Rival suitor (Charles Stevenson) as they both vie for the affection of the Girl (Mildred Davis). When accidentally deputized to participate in a manhunt for the Tramp (Dick Sutherland) who has killed a man, Harold flees to his room, cowering behind his locked door. The next morning Harold’s Grandmother (Anna Townsend) comforts him, telling him that his grandfather had also been a coward when he was a soldier in the Civil War. A lucky talisman transformed the timid soldier into a hero, and after his grandmother gives Harold the talisman, he too becomes transformed. Not only does he single-handedly capture the Tramp, he also summarily whoops his rival, grabs his girl, professes his love for her, and the two head off to get married.
Basically a morality play, Grandma’s Boy could have easily been played as a straight drama, but fortunately it was made by Harold Lloyd, which means lots of great comedy. Interestingly, much of the comedy in the film was added after the first test screening, where Grandma’s Boy failed miserably. Lloyd agreed with producer Hal Roach that the film needed more laughs, but Lloyd was adamant that the laughs not alter the film’s theme. What’s so amazing is that the laughs actually help the theme, building the characters and making the situations funny and poignant at the same time. The idea that much of the humor in Grandma’s Boy was retrofitted with the plot almost boggles the mind because the film as it is now, is seamless. Many of the funniest moments are actually setup in earlier scenes and then paid off later. The Rival has tossed Harold down a well, and as he makes his way home, Harold’s only suit shrinks to almost nothing, leaving him nothing to wear for his Girl’s dinner party. Grandma comes to the rescue with Grandpa’s old suit, which has been packed away in mothballs. While Harold dresses, Grandma shines his shoes, using goose-grease. Later, at the Girl’s, the two sit comfortably together on a bench. The Girl makes a face, indicating a bad smell, and Harold realizes that he still has some mothballs in his pocket. He secrets them into a box of candy on the table next to the Girl. Naturally one of the mothball’s finds it’s way into Harold’s mouth, and there is no one better at “mouth comedy” then Harold, as he makes face after face, trying to figure a way to spit out the crunched up mess. Building on the scene, enter the Rival, who grabs a handful of the “candy”, and soon the two are making the same faces at each other, but never to the Girl. While this is happening, the Girl’s kitten has discovered Harold’s goose-greased covered shoes, and proceeds to lick them, soon inviting the rest of the litter in to have a taste. Two slight gags, which help to endear Harold’s Boy even as they make us laugh.
Even in his shorts, Lloyd’s Glass Character was the optimistic everyman. In Grandma’s Boy he starts out as a milquetoast, and we get to observe as he turns into the character we know. But now the Glass Character has more depth, is even more identifiable. And it’s this subtle difference, allowing the audience to empathize (whereas with Chaplin’s Tramp one generally would sympathize), that makes the Glass Character the quintessential 1920’s comedic hero. Even when Lloyd would return to gag-filled feature (Why Worry? for instance), elements developed in his previous pictures would carry over, having us feel things for his character–perhaps “unearned” in the gag film–but nevertheless there.
Lloyd’s acting had much to do with this, and in Grandma’s Boy he does well in the dramatic scenes, of course handling the comedy effortlessly. The tender scenes he plays with Anna Townsend stand out, but Lloyd also handles his “dual role” as his own grandfather (in the flashback), with great aplomb. The finale of the film, where Lloyd fights his Rival is outstanding. Not staged with many laughs in mind, the fight is very credible, and quite long, actually, adding to the believability. Charles Stevenson as the Rival shows that he can do action as well as comedy, making a superb antagonist for Harold.
As mentioned, director Fred Newmeyer had to put gags into an already shot movie, and did so seamlessly. There is not one shot in the film that looks like a pick up or was shoehorned in, which is difficult to believe, given how much humor is in the movie. Newmeyer handles the dramatic scenes with the tenderness they require, but never making them cloying and always remembering that Grandma’s Boy is, after all, a comedy.
Grandma’s Boy is available on DVD as part of Volume 2 of the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection from New Line Home Entertainment. The restored film looks in good shape, but not quite as clean as most of the other Lloyd film’s in the set. There is a slight bit of noticeable wear, particularly right at the end of the film, but it still looks better then most restored films from the period. Robert Israel provides another fantastic score, which works beautifully with the comedy, and may be just a bit too schmaltzy during the dramatic scenes, but who doesn’t like some schmaltz every now and then?
Grandma’s Boy is also available on The Harold Lloyd Collection from Kino Video with a workable score by Neil Brand.
Kevin M. Wentink