(1928) Directed by: Ted Wilde; Written by John Grey, Lex Neal, Howard Emmett Rogers and Jay Howe; Starring: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, Byron Douglas, Brooks Benedict and Babe Ruth
Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu
“Speedy being a big city picture, I am an irresponsible, flip, scatter-brained, baseball-crazy youth of a kind the city breeds by the thousands.” – Harold Lloyd (from his autobiography, An American Comedy)
As the silent era was drawing to a close, Harold Lloyd pulled out all the stops for his exuberant, aptly named comedy Speedy. High-energy gags and a brisk pace ensure the film lives up to its title. Speedy was set in New York City, but filmed partially on location in New York and Los Angeles. While Speedy deserves to be better regarded in its own right, it’s known primarily for two things: capturing Coney Island as it appeared in 1928, and featuring baseball great Babe Ruth as himself.
According to Lloyd’s autobiography, Speedy started as a criminal underworld plot, until it evolved into something quite different. It’s a simple story, but in Lloyd and company’s capable hands, the film is ripe with comic possibilities. Lloyd stars as Harold “Speedy” Swift,* a young man whose baseball obsession appears boundless, but his capacity to hold a steady job is nil. He already has a steady girlfriend, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy), but she’s not ready to settle down until her grandfather’s affairs are in order. Her grandfather, Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) runs the last horse-drawn streetcar in New York City, which is a thorn in the side of railway tycoon W.S. Wilton (Byron Douglas, erroneously listed in IMDB as “Bryon Douglas” and “Uncredited). Wilton intends to put Pop Dillon out of business by hook or by crook. If he can’t buy him out, he’s not above resorting to some underhanded tactics to get his way. What follows are three distinct acts, each with its own distinct flavor.
* Fun fact: According to Lloyd, the title came from a childhood nickname. Lloyd observed in his autobiography, “When the character of the current picture began to take shape, it was seen that the name fitted him like a glove.”
The first third is a delight for amusement park enthusiasts, featuring a visit to Coney Island. Luna and Steeplechase Parks appear in all their glory, back in the days when the rides were apparently designed with the specific intent to kill you, or at least leave you maimed (Seatbelts? We don’t need any stinkin’ seatbelts! What’s a concussion or broken collarbone between friends, right?). Witness “Shoot the Chutes,” a boat ride that purposefully flies off the tracks into a lake. Another diabolical contraption, “The Human Roulette Wheel,” features a spinning floor – its sole purpose is to see who can last the longest before being flung away from the center, crashing head over heels into your fellow riders. Some great gags are built around a wayward crab (Don’t ask why they sold live crabs at an amusement park.) that stows away in Speedy’s coat pocket, and a mischievous but loveable mutt that takes a shine to the young couple.
The second act continues Speedy’s ongoing dilemma with chronic unemployment. He becomes a cabdriver, but for reasons that are painfully obvious to the viewer, can’t seem to get any passengers. After a series of misadventures, he finally lands the mother of all fares, Babe Ruth (in a memorable cameo), who needs a ride to Yankee Stadium. What follows is a harrowing cab ride through the streets of Manhattan, weaving through traffic and pedestrians at a breakneck pace, as Speedy and his mortified passenger narrowly avoid disaster at every turn. Thanks to some snappy editing, the scene is a visceral, thrilling experience that couldn’t have been more effective if filmed today.
Speedy loses some steam in the final act, as Wilton makes good on his threat to stop Pop Dillon. When some hired toughs attempt to stop the streetcar service, Speedy enlists the aid of the local residents, and an all-out war ensues. This sequence drags on a little too long, and seems the least inventive, compared to many of the scenes that preceded it. Things pick up, however after the streetcar is stolen. Pop Dillon will lose the streetcar run if it’s out of service for more than 24 hours, so Speedy must race against the clock to locate the errant trolley before time runs out. What follows is another energetic ride through the streets, as he endeavors to overcome all manner of obstacles.
Will Speedy get his act together? Will he get to marry the girl he loves? Do you really have to ask? As with many great silent comedies, it’s not the destination that’s so satisfying, but the journey. He’s such a likeable screw-up that it’s hard not to root for him every step of the way. At times, Speedy appears as if three different films were combined into one. If you want to nitpick, the parts are superior to the whole, but oh, what parts they are. The many elaborate gags really pay off, and rank right up there with the best of them. Even if some segments seem familiar, rarely have all of the parts been executed so well. As Lloyd’s final silent film, it’s a fitting epitaph to this stage of his career, and a reminder that this specific form of comedy will always have a place in film lovers’ hearts.