May 10, 2018
Grandma’s Boy – US, 1922
My old English teacher Mr. Dowling once remarked that it was illogical for a character to suddenly display abilities at a key moment if he or she has not demonstrated them previously. This observation came after his class had been assigned to finish a short story about a bullied boy with no athletic skills. In all of my classmates’ finales, the boy stepped up to the plate with the game on the line and hit one out of the park, an action for which the boy was lauded and paraded off the field on his teammates’ shoulders. Mr. Dowling’s point was a good one, and over the years, I’ve scratched my head at moments like these in movies – John Cusack suddenly being able to hit a basket when it counts, Sammo Hung’s partners’ mysterious martial arts skills, Kristen Stewart’s incredible horse-riding skills after spending her whole life locked in a tower, Dumbo realizing he doesn’t need the feather. (All right, I admit that last one choked me up.)
This incredible ability to excel at something all of a sudden has been a staple of comedies for as long as I can remember. Buster Keaton employed it in his fun film College, and it was commonplace in the 1980’s, a decade when Michael J. Fox’s buddies on the basketball team found their shooting touch at just the right moment, and Elizabeth Shue was able to belt out the blues without any musical training. Sometimes these changes work, providing laughs and a good sense of cosmic karma; other times, they just come across as lazy writing, the kind that you get when a writer is forced to come up with a happy ending. The suddenly they could do it moment is an easy out of a scenario that a writer has boxed himself into. Yet for some reason they work for films from the silent and slapstick periods, and a good example of this is Harold Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer.
The film is about a young man with a yellow streak a mile long. In the opening scenes, we see a montage of moments in which he declines to stand up for himself against school bullies. We finally settle on his nineteenth year, when we find him deeply in love with a young lady named Mildred (Mildred Davis) and still refusing to stand up for himself. As luck would have it, his competition for Mildred’s affection is the most recent bully to decide to push him around (Charles Stevenson). The first half also introduces a subplot involving a scary-looking tramp, one who appears to fear nothing but an old woman and a broom. In a clever bit, Harold tried to send a dog to do a man’s work, and all it takes is for the tramp to look at him and sneer for the dog to go running. In the second half of the film, Harold must find a way to deal with both of his adversaries while also proving he is good enough for Mildred. Somehow I think he has a pretty decent chance of success.
There’s an undeniable sweetness to Harold Lloyd’s characters. In him, we recognize the best of ourselves – someone that never gives up, someone that knows true love, someone who is both a sensitive soul and a warrior when called upon. He’s also someone who can be counted on to rise to the occasion, and sometimes doing so involves finding a skill all of a sudden. Is it realistic? Not entirely, yet Lloyd pulls it off, partly because he works so hard to persuade us that it is really happening. Here, he employs a talisman, one similar to Dumbo’s magic feather and Bugs Bunny’s secret potion in Space Jam, and part of the fun is in watching the way his character changes, from his new confident body language to the aggressiveness with which he pursues his goals. Lloyd embodies these changes; he makes them believable in the moment in a way that his later contemporaries have not always been able to do, and it is a wonder to behold.
The film is stacked with memorable comedic moments. There’s Harold’s shrink-proof suit, the one he dons as a replacement, the humorous intertitles, the ramifications of using goose grease to polish his shoes, and his numerous attempts to be the hero and impress the girl he loves. Much of the comedy in the first half goes by quickly, as the film rarely slows down to stretch a gag or make it a key plot point, unlike his seminal film The Freshman. The exact opposite is true of the gags in the second half. Here, Lloyd is given the opportunity to take his time, and in doing so, he creates a world of truly zany lunacy.
Is some of it predictable? Sure. Would the same situation be humorous in a more modern film? Probably not. And I have no doubt that some viewers will be more than a little put off by the positive view of the Confederacy espoused in the film. Again, this is not something we’d see much of in today’s films, but back in the 1920’s, this kind of portrayal was not uncommon. Here the Confederacy occupies a small part of the plot, which is quite unlike what Keaton did in his masterpiece The General.
I never had a chance to ask Mr. Dowling what he thought of particular motifs in movies or whether he applied the same critical standard to Hollywood productions as he did to literature. It’s possible he would look at a film like Grandma’s Boy, shake his head, and utter those analytical words Impossible. Just where did he get these incredible skills? Somehow, though, I think he would still have found a way to see the fun in the illogical, to sit back, put his hands behind his head, and just enjoy the film for what it is: a spirited work by a genius in front of the camera. I know I did. (on DVD as part of Kino’s Slapstick Symposium: The Harold Lloyd Collection)
3 and a half stars