Sunday, 4 September 2016

New York Minutes… Speedy (1928), Criterion Edition

For some time now we looked over the Atlantic with jealous hearts and relieved wallets at the range of classic films released on NSTC and Blu-Ray by Criterion: blue ribbon editions with essays and extras marking them out as the definitive editions (in most cases). Now, after years of multi-regional Russian roulette – most play some don’t – we have our own versions of these discs being released to rival or surpass Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series.

Typically avoiding the obvious, Criterion have picked Harold not Charlie or Buster to lead the American invasion and what a sound choice that is: The Twenties highest-grossing comedian given the prominence he deserves in a film that highlights his timing, unrivalled gag-construction and the endurance of a persona that is perhaps the most malleable and enduring of all…

Directed by Ted Wilde and produced by Lloyd, Speedy is his last silent film and it feels like a farewell to every trick and fluid expression soon to be curtailed by the tyranny of the fixed microphone.

Harry and Ann Christy - four different fun fairs were used as Coney Island
Fittingly it features one man’s fight against the on-rush of progress: a battle that can only be won with ultimate defeat assured and only the manner of surrender to be decided on. Needless to say, Lloyd’s character isn’t going to take anything lying down and you’re never going to bet against him winning the peace.

It also features your actual Babe Ruth doing a fine job of being Babe Ruth. Seems like an OK guy for such a huge sportsman but they put deeds first and wealthy contracts second in the era of silent sport…

The Sultan of Swat hails a cab
My great grandfather drove a tram in Liverpool at around this time although they stopped using horses here in 1903 and 1917 in NYC – Lloyd’s story was already looking back in 1928 – and I suppose that gives me especial sympathy for Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) the driver of the last horse and tram in New York. He plods a lone track and is under intense pressure from the automated competitors all too eager to mechanise the entire network.

Pop offers a service as slow as it is reliable and as cheap as it is friendly: his customers rely on him and he’s a pivotal figure in a commercial culture still run by Victorian men – some of whom go back to the Civil War. It's Grenwich Village as it was and even by 1928 the community was changing.

Bert Woodrfuff and Ann Christy
Pop has a delightful grand-daughter, Jane (Ann Christy – another looker for Lloyd) who dotes on him whilst also being incredibly supportive of her endlessly-exasperating boyfriend, Harold 'Speedy' Swift (Lloyd) who is quick but only in terms of losing patience, concentration and consequently jobs.

Speedy was, incidentally, Lloyd’s family nick-name, bestowed by his father… irony may have been involved.

This Speedy is mad on Baseball and tries to work as close as possible to Yankee Stadium or at least near a phone so that he can keep tabs with his beloved New York Yankees. Serving customers in a down town del, Speedy keeps his colleagues informed of the state of play by using don-nuts to indicate the score: it’s an efficient method but only up to a point and as the Yankees score three Speedy gets spotted and it’s off to his next job.

Harry knows the score - one donut to a three pretzel
But first things first and Speedy has a weekend with his gal Jane to arrange and off they go to the many joyful rides of Luna Park at Coney Island.  The Playground of the World is its own star here and actual rides add to the experience whereas other films may have used corny-Coney substitutes.

Back to life, back to reality and after much error and trial Speedy ends up as a cab driver but even this proves a discipline too far as he struggles with contraption and concentration. He’s commandeered by two cops in a chase and ends up with a speeding ticket for his pains then drives off again with what he thinks is the officers on board but which only leads to another ticket. It’s three strikes and out but then he chances upon a school reception for Babe Ruth who he ends up giving a high-speed lift to Yankee Stadium: more police trouble.

Coney Island baby
The film shifts gear for a superb scenic climax as Speedy fights to maintain Pop’s required run of one service every 24 hours. The bad railway company (not Southern Rail of Govia apparently…) has tried to buy the old man out but in the face of his intransigence decide that violence and theft is the only option. At first they try to use gangs of heavies to stop the service by force but Speedy calls upon the legion of super shop-keepers to use their old Yankee spirit to fight them using brooms, bins and sheer weight of numbers. It’s a little reminiscent of the massed brawl in Keaton’s The Cameraman and that’s no bad thing!

Then the baddies steel both horse and tram and as the clock ticks it looks like the game is up but Speedy finds the clue and then the tram and proceeds to rip through the streets of Manhattan (mostly!) followed by the enemy – it’s a break-neck tour of the city as it was and it makes for fascinating viewing: from Union Square to Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Times Square and Broadway down to Wall Street and across to the Queensboro bridge.

The sequence is up there with massed chase in Cops and one that even incorporates a genuine crash – you can see the stuntman tumble out of the tram - followed by an on-the-spot improvisation of a wheel from a man-hole cover. It’s hard to believe that this was the end for silent Harold Lloyd but he goes out with a bang and in a manner that proved his ideas were second to no man in terms of invention and breath-taking verve.

He is ably supported by Ann Christy who replaced the out-of-contract Jobyna Ralston as well as a host of extras and New York City herself: seven million extras! The horses are also good – there were at least three with one being used for ballast in the tram chase.

Can you spot the third horse?
The restored image is very crisp and renders far better than any version of the film I’ve seen before. The disc also comes with an impeccable score from Carl Davis which brings symphonic scale to proceedings and is in great sympathy with the mood and action: like the story it whips along… speedy indeed.

There’s a host of extras as you’d expect from Criterion… including Bumping into Broadway a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler and In the Footsteps of Speedy, a fascinating visit to the locations from Bruce Goldstein which shows that the film was centred on the West Village as it was in 1917 when the last horse-tram ran from Sheridan Square. Goldstein reckons Speedy to be the best silent made of New York and it’s hard to argue.

I’d go on but you probably already have it! If not, it’s available direct or via Amazon. Hurry up!

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