Okay, it’s time for a cinephile confession: I don’t like Harold Lloyd. This won’t mean anything to those of you who aren’t into silent film, I realize, but rest assured, there’s a lot of hardcore film fans who are appalled by that statement.
It’s not that I don’t like silent film, rest assured, or silent comedy. Indeed, I think Buster Keaton may be one of the all-time great film presences, a truly gifted genius whose films hold up perfectly today, and still make me laugh. And while Chaplin could get maudlin if he was allowed to run rampant (the treacly Limelight is pretty much unwatchable), when the man was at his best – Modern Times, The Gold Rush, etc. – he’s magical. But I’ve tried Harold Lloyd three times now – Safety Last!, of course, but I’ve watched The Freshman both on my own and with a loving crowd. And both times, I was nothing so much as bored.
It’s not that Lloyd is bad in any way, mind you. His presence is pretty much perfect for what he’s trying to do in The Freshman. Harold “Speedy” Lamb is excited about college, and eager to be the most popular man on campus. And surely all of those times watching movies about college will help him know what to do, right? So, sure, Lloyd is perfect for this role, playing a nerdy guy who just wants to be liked, and refuses to give up. And his likability makes the role work, for the most part; you can understand why the football coach can’t bring himself to cut Lamb off the team, despite his obvious lack of talent. The guy is just trying so hard.
But here’s the problem with Lloyd: he’s not funny. When you watch a Keaton film, you’re in awe of his stuntwork, yes, but he never forgets how to make the gag funny, using his stone face to perfect effect, playing with reaction shots, and knowing how to build in a way that makes you anticipate the gag without ever quite knowing where it’s going to go. With Chaplin, it’s the man’s ability to throw himself into the bit, turning his performance into the joke.
Lloyd, by contrast, just…exists. The gags are there, but they’re obvious, and uninspired, and rarely do much more than play out the way you expect them to – and that’s deadly to comedy. Worse, though, they end up distracting you from the “story” of the film. The best comedies set up their world, and then the gags pay off as you go. The climactic football game barely makes any sense as a game – how many downs do they actually get? Why do the teams swap possession seemingly randomly? And why does Lloyd get to keep running after fumbling, being tackled, etc? I’m not even a sports guy, but I know enough to realize that the game doesn’t make sense – and that Lloyd is so bad that his eventual game-winning play isn’t enough to make him a hero. Just less of a joke.
Look, I get that Lloyd is often heralded as the forgotten equal of Chaplin and Keaton. And maybe I’m missing something here (although the fact that I’ve watched apparently his two most well-regarded doesn’t help). But to me, watching a Harold Lloyd film is like seeing what people think silent comedy is like – broad, dull, and pratfall-filled. And I find it bewildering that he’s held up against Chaplin and especially Keaton, given how little I feel like he brings to the table, and how little I ever laughed beyond a quick chuckle (often at the interstitial cards, not the film).
But, hey, I’m willing to hear how wrong I am. I know I’m in a minority here, and that I may have my cinephile card burned. So be it.