Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Two Hearts of Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy - A Critical Film Review

In many ways the sheer ambition and scale of what Lloyd does with Girl Shy’s race sequence tops what he did with the building climb in Safety Last, albeit horizontally.

Harold Lloyd! If you have not heard of him or have only vaguely heard of him, then you need to keep reading this! 

Unlike Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy (I am currently looking into Buster Keaton), I was not a huge fan of Harold Lloyd until, until I had the privilege to research his life and films for a research portfolio I had to assemble for the Understanding Hollywood module I undertook in the penultimate year of my BA (Hons). 

The research and writing was undertaken between November 2011 and February 2012 and I continued to explore his work even after the portfolio was completed. This critical essay forms one component of that portfolio - a portfolio that was awarded a first.

What follows is what I originally wrote in the submitted critical review, more or less. I hope you enjoy discovering the deeper complexity and tenderness of that most famous skyscraper dangling silent comedian - Harold Lloyd.

“The image of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock attached to the face of a skyscraper is by general agreement the most famous shot of American silent comedy” (Steven Jacobs 2010:152). 

Lloyd hangs out in Safety Last“To his chagrin, Harold Lloyd was labelled as a stunt comedian; the picture of him hanging from a clock seems to be all that people remember” (Brownlow 1979:144).

This iconic image comes from Lloyd’s most recognised film Safety Last (Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, USA, 1923); as Paul Merton comments: “In Safety Last Harold Lloyd climbs to the top of his profession” (Merton 2007:182). Certainly, if you are talking about Lloyd finding his own niche in the silent comedy genre and in creating an iconic image then, yes, Lloyd does climb to the top of his profession. 

However, if are talking about Lloyd’s diversity as an actor then Safety Last really doesn’t hit the mark, not by a long shot:

“He was an outstanding actor – his facial expressions were so subtle that you sometimes thought that, like Keaton, they never changed. And yet they could convulse you all by themselves” (Brownlow 1979:144).

Beneath this initial comic façade there is a far greater actor and, in quite a few of his films, this performer gets to stretch his acting muscles - especially so in Girl Shy (Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, USA, 1924).

In Girl Shy Lloyd plays a character named Harold Meadows: a tailor apprentice to his uncle (Richard Daniels), Harold suffers from a severe stutter that is induced by a fear of woman. 

To combat this Harold works on a book “The Secret of Making Love,” in which he writes about various fictional love affairs he claims to have had. 

One of the fictional episodes from "The Secret of Making Love".

We see two of these nonsensical episodes illustrated with two stereotypical women of the 1920s: the Vamp, who he wins her over by ignoring her, and the Slapper, who he wins over by throwing against a wall. 

The episodes are clear indicators of his lack of knowledge of women and for which he is later mocked: “I suppose you can look right into the depths of a woman’s soul.”

While this is indicative of a lack of knowledge it is not a lack of respect, and this is one of the film's biggest strengths. By: “putting them on pedestals and worshiping them” (Everson 1978:271), Lloyd was one of the comics who actively embraced and promoted women. Therefore, his shyness of woman is just an indicator of his respect of viewing a woman as something so special she is unattainable. 

From when I originally wrote this critical review in 2012.

This changes when Harold becomes entwined with Jobyna Ralston’s character Mary Buckingham. After Mary’s Chihuahua jumps from a moving train; in one of the film’s best visual gags, Harold comes to the rescue and scoops the little dog up as the train rolls on. After returning the dog to Mary, due to the train’s no dog policy, what follows is series of antics in which he helps Mary cover up the dog’s presence. 

These involve Harold pretending to have a bad case of the barks, munching on a dog biscuit and hiding the dog under the long, grey beard of an old gentleman (Gus Leonard). It is through these gags that a deep bond develops between the two of the the characters.

Harold, in turn, is genuinely flattered when Mary discovers his manuscript of “The Secrets of Making Love” and asks to hear about it. The sequence ends with Mary enthralled by Harold rattling on about his book; both, however, are unaware that the train has reached its destination and the other passengers have exited the train.

Hiding the dog on the train (3:27).

This section of the film is significant because it is here that the first major shift in Lloyd’s character occurs, he goes from a timid tailor’s apprentice, who can barely look a pretty girl in the eye, to a resilient individual, who is willing to make himself the fool just to help a pretty girl. 

This is key to understanding the difference between a Harold Lloyd gag film, e.g. Safety Last, and a Harold Lloyd character film, e.g. Girl Shy, in the gag film the gags are supreme, but in a character film the gags are there to serve the characters.

However, aside from Lloyd, and to a lesser degree Ralston, there are not any other unique or wide ranging characterisations that stick out. If we are to follow the opening credits in which only four of the characters receive onscreen credit, then the most important characters in the film are Harold, Mary, Jerry Meadows and Ronald DeVore (Charlton Griffin). 

DeVore is the antagonist and fellow admirer of Mary; he is also a bigamist. Griffin is not inclined to do much acting because with his moustache, skeletal face and beady eyes, DeVore already looks very vile and incredibly shifty.

DeVore is playing a stereotype, but it is a reductive stereotype: reducing the bigamist’s personality to very little, as one intertitle says: “Ronald DeVore - the type of man that men forget.” 

As Lloyd already had an affinity for respecting woman, clearly, his attitude towards a bigamist is plain - in the film Harold throws a stone at DeVore’s head.

After a long night of writing- exhausted, just like Harold.

On the other hand, with Daniels’ character Jerry Meadows (Harold’s uncle in the film) there is a characterisation, but only in so far that if Girl Shy wasn’t already a comedy, Harold’s uncle would be the comic relief character. 

Indeed, all of the emotion and pathos is attached firmly to Lloyd’s and Ralston’s characters; but agreeably so, seeing as this is a romantic comedy about their interplay with one another.

Another significant character shift comes when Harold discovers that Mary is about to marry DeVore; it is also in this scene that Harold discovers that DeVore is a bigamist! Now Harold’s destiny is set: he must stop the wedding ceremony and save Mary! Thus the film itself also enacts a shift as the character element begins to fade out and the gag/spectacle element starts to fade in. 

Aside from a brief reprise in the closing minutes, from here on out the film is concerned with visual gags in what is considered: “the greatest race-to-the-rescue sequence of the entire silent cinema” (Vance et al., 2002:108). It even went on to influence the chariot race in Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (Dir. Fred Niblo, USA, 1925) the following year. 

Some of Lloyd's races to the rescue (3:47).

In many ways the sheer ambition and scale of what Lloyd does with Girl Shy’s race sequence tops what he did with the building climb in Safety Last, albeit horizontally.

The race sequence is filled with different forms of transportation: foot, cars, motorcycle, streetcar, horseback, horse and carriage. It needs to have different forms of transportation considering it clocks in at twenty minutes! 

However, the length of it does not, by any means, compromise the visceral impact of the sequence. Lloyd may not have been a through-and-through comedian, with a Vaudevillian or Music Hall background, but he was a genius when it came to exploiting physically distressing situations for comedy:

“Lloyd did it exceptionally well-perhaps too well; some people still reject him for making them feel uncomfortable” (Brownlow 2002:13). 

One line of criticism maintains that: “Lloyd tended to be dismissed as a mechanical comedian, too concerned with laughs for their own sake. Gilbert Seldes, chronicler of the popular arts, declared that Lloyd had no tenderness” (Brownlow 2002:10), while this Is certainly true of Lloyd’s early comedies, how someone can say there is no tenderness in a film like Girl Shy is madness! 

The silent beauty of Girl Shy (2:38).

Tenderness is an essential quality of the Harold Meadows character.

On the other hand, when talking about the race sequence this line of thought does hold some weight. In one sense, the spectator does not care about Mary, as inhuman as this sounds, because Lloyd’s brilliant physical performance and orchestration detracts all of the spectator’s attention from the eventual goal of the race: to prevent the wedding ceremony - to save Mary! 

This is something that Lloyd himself agreed with, as he: “believed the chase sequence – which he loved – overwhelmed everything that preceded it. (Vance et al., 2002:108). However, it would be unfair to accuse of all the race sequence as being like this and while most of it is an elaborate side track, the emphasis is placed back on Mary in the final minutes of the race, as evidenced with the increased amount of cuts back to her.

Mechanical comedies?

It has been commented that: “The Girl Shy chase was the heart of the entire picture” (Correll 1992). While this is true in illustrating Lloyd’s brilliance as a visual comedian and in the sense that: “Harold decided to make that film based on the chase” (Correll 1992), it is not in terms of how Lloyd and Ralston interplay with each other in the narrative, as Vance says: “The love story in Girl Shy was the start of Lloyd’s maturity as a filmmaker” (Vance et al., 2002:115). 

Ultimately, it is still a compliment to say that Girl Shy has two hearts: a character heart and a gag heart.

With his everyday quality and horn-rimmed glasses, It has long been held that Lloyd’s Glass Character was the inspiration for Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent. Certainly, this comparison explains Lloyd’s mass appeal as the Glass character and of a film like Girl Shy, because Lloyd plays an average looking person who achieves incredible things: “he draws on ordinary life and people could recognise themselves” (Brownlow 2007). 

Girl shy Harold and less shy Mary Buckingham.

Lloyd’s skill as a versatile actor allows his Superman quality to be infectious for his audience: “Lloyd’s own charm, his innate optimism, and his aggressive pursuit of success, elements so typical of the 1920’s, all combine to give his films a perennial freshness and zest” (Everson, 1978:276) and, with its two hearts pumping this freshness and zest, Girl Shy is a prime example of Lloyd’s infectiousness.


Brownlow, K. (1979) Hollywood: The Pioneers. London: William Collins Sons & Co LTD.

Everson, W.K. (1978) ‘Comedy’. In: American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc, pp.260-280.

Jacobs, S. (2010) ‘Slapstick Skyscrapers’. In: Paulus, T and King, R. eds. Slapstick Comedy. New York: Routledge, pp.152-168.

Merton, P. (2007) Silent Comedy. London: Random House Books.

Vance, J. and Lloyd, S. (2002) Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated.


“American Masters” Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, 1992. [Online] Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rjq41EFgsuM&feature=BFa&list=PL8314099849315292&lf=plpp_video

Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925) film: Dir. Fred Niblo. 143 minutes. USA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Girl Shy (DVD); Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. 87 minutes. USA: The Harold Lloyd Corporation, Pathé Exchange, 1924 (2007).

Memories, Secrets and Gags: Kevin Brownlow Interview. (2007) DVD. [9 Disc Harold Lloyd: The Definitive Collection]; 29 hours 06 minutes. Optimum Releasing Limited.

Safety Last! (1923) film; Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. 70 minutes. USA: Hal Roach Studios, Pathé Exchange.

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