Published on August 26th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy0
Oldie of the Week – Girl Shy (1924)
Taylor continues his silent era binge with another gem to vouch for. This time its a satirical yet understated Harold Lloyd slapstick romantic comedy, aptly titled Girl Shy.
We’re staying in the silent era this week for a look at an underrated film starring one of the great comedians of American silent cinema, Harold Lloyd. After witnessing Sunrise for the first time, I was inspired to remain in the silent age and cover some of the major films that I’ve missed as well as some of the more hidden gems of the period. First up is Girl Shy (1924), directed by Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmayer. Often spoke of in comparison to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the two other major comics of American silent film, Lloyd was also known for elaborate physical comedy. Though Lloyd was more popular at the box office in his 1920s heyday than either Chaplin or Keaton, these days he’s not quite as well known among general audiences. His most famous film is 1923’s Safety Last!, which features the iconic image of Lloyd hanging from a clock face, a scene referenced and parodied in many later films (such as the climax of 1985’s Back to the Future). That famous scene exemplifies Lloyd’s style of “thrill comedies,” combining gags with impressive stunts, chases, and action sequences, much like Buster Keaton.
What separates Lloyd from his two most notable contemporaries is the lack of as distinct a comedic persona. Chaplin’s bumbling, sweet natured and oblivious Little Tramp, with his silly walk, baggy clothes, and little moustache, is immediately recognizable and larger than life. Keaton is known for his “stone face,” his minimal, frequently befuddled reactions to the absurdity happening around him. Lloyd’s “Glasses” character, which he developed in a series of short films in the late 1910s and early 1920s and carried into his 1920s features, is not so easily described. As scholar David Bordwell describes, he’s often referred to as a Jazz Age go-getter, the striver looking to climb the American ladder of success in the pre-crash roaring 20s. However, as Bordwell notes, Lloyd also played “hayseeds humiliated by city folk and con artists” as well as “louche one-percenters” who need to learn humility. Furthermore, in his short films, Lloyd’s characterization varied widely, sometimes acting the good-natured everyman, but sometimes playing a hustler or ne’er-do-well. When he moved into feature length films in the early 20s, his characters began to be more definite, and were generally given a pronounced flaw that he would overcome over the course of the film, a trajectory of growth that modern screenwriters would call a character arc. Lloyd began to distinguish between “gag films” and “character films,” the latter of which places a greater emphasis on our concern for the protagonist in developing its story line. This means that while Lloyd didn’t have as clear a comic persona as Chaplin or Keaton, his characters could achieve a higher level of emotional complexity.
Girl Shy is a strong example of this, with its flawed, insecure protagonist and comedic scenarios built around shame, humiliation and cruelty, at times reminiscent of modern “cringe comedies.” It represents, in Bordwell’s words, Lloyd demonstrating how “everything that worked for serious dramaturgy could work for comedy too,” as it applies the emerging narrative conventions of the classical Hollywood film to the physical comedy format. Today Girl Shy comes across as an archetypal Hollywood rom-com, filled with conventions like the “meet cute,” the wrong partner who gets in the way of the protagonists’ love, and the climactic chase to the altar. But while the film does place a greater emphasis on character and plot development than on pure slapstick, it does not neglect the “thrill” portion of Lloyd’s formula. The final chase sequence is one of the greatest ever filmed, an exciting and funny mix of inspired gags, breathtaking stunts and an inventive use of a wide variety of vehicles. It’s story also features satirical commentary on gender relations that remains insightful and relevant today.
Lloyd plays Harold Meadows, a young man with a severe stutter who, as the title suggests, is clumsy and awkward around women. He is afraid of them, so much so that he has created a secret study, a kind of proto-pickup artist manual, called How to Make Love, in which he writes of his apparent romantic exploits with various types of women. Convinced he has a best seller on his hands, he travels from his town of Little Bend to the city to take his manuscript to a publisher, and on the train has an encounter with a sweet natured young rich woman, Mary Buckingham (Jobyna Ralston, who starred in several of Lloyd’s 20s features), helping to sneak her dog on board.
Here is an example of the classic meet cute in the Hollywood romantic comedy, where the protagonists have their first encounter in a charmingly offbeat, romantic fashion. Mary, who was only taking the train because her car broke down, begins to regularly detour through Little Bend, hoping to encounter Harold again. Some time later, after Harold has dropped off his manuscript, they have another chance meeting when Mary swerves off the road, distracted by the pushy attentions of Ronald Devore, a rich and persistent suitor who is trying to convince her to marry him. Bumping into each other near a picturesque river (another meet-cute), they start to fall for each other as Harold dreams up big plans for the two of them once he becomes a successful author. Our charming couple is threatened, however, by the presence of Devore, who is trying to win Mary’s affections despite already being married. Here is the evil wrong partner who gets in the way of our protagonists’ love, another classic staple of the romantic comedy.
Meanwhile, Harold’s book hasn’t exactly been received how he was expecting. It becomes a laughing-stock at the publisher’s, with all the ladies in the office gathering around to mock Harold’s ridiculously misguided views about women. In fact, they have such a great time making fun of Harold’s book that they decide to rebrand it as The Boob’s Diary and sell it as a comedy. Harold is unaware of this at first, and in his dejected state when he thinks his book has been rejected he tells Mary that he lied about his plans for their future, feeling that he does not deserve her now that he has no financial prospects. In order to make her forget him he commits an act of self-sabotage in a painful scene, mocking her and laughing about what she believed about their love, even though it hurts him to do so. The complicated play of emotions in this scene exemplifies Lloyd’s unique place among his comedic contemporaries. The cruel nature of Harold’s actions here towards the confused and unsuspecting Mary is already painful, but is made more so because we know that Harold is not acting out of his own desires but rather his feelings of worthlessness after being rejected, only doing what he thinks is best for Mary. This uncomfortable scene becomes even more humiliating for Mary when Harold pretends to walk off happily with another woman he has just met, leaving Mary to watch on in anguish. And if that isn’t bad enough, in the next scene we learn that the publisher wants to sell Harold’s book after all, making his abandonment of Mary completely unnecessary.
Harold’s book is the focal point of the film’s fascinating satire of gender dynamics. When he is writing, we see fantasy scenes of the scenarios he describes, such as him winning the affections of a flapper with his “caveman methods,” treating her in a cruel, domineering fashion. The scenarios are completely absurd, the fantasies of a man who has never truly interacted with a woman, basing his ideas about them on exaggerated cultural stereotypes he has likely encountered in books and films. He gets a dose of reality when he visits the publisher’s office and all the women there, who have been reading and making fun of his book, begin to mockingly throw themselves at him, teasing him about his supposed romantic expertise. Bordwell aptly describes the film as “a procession of social humiliations,” and here is a significant one for Harold. But while he is subject to some cruel teasing and mockery, it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it to some degree, being made to confront the emptiness of his sexist generalizations about women and how to treat them. While the scene is certainly embarrassing for Harold, it is also very satisfying to see a group of charming, lively young women openly and sarcastically rebuke the pompously chauvinistic attitudes espoused by Harold’s book.
The film depicts these kinds of chauvinistic attitudes as being motivated by fear, loneliness, and insecurity, a point underscored during one of Harold and Mary’s romantic scenes. Sitting together by the river, Harold tells Mary that he wants to add a new chapter to his book, that “since my visit to the city, I seem to feel differently about women. They seem more wonderful – more glorious.” Now that he has actually been interacting with a woman, he has begun to see them as human beings and not fearsome creatures to be studied from a distance. No longer filled with the loneliness and nervous fear that has curdled into bitter, dehumanizing resentment, he is able to see women much more positively.
The plots about Harold’s book and his romance with Mary come to a head when the publisher sends him a $3000 cheque for his newly rebranded comedic diary. Initially outraged at the change, he realizes that he will be able to marry Mary after all. However, Mary has finally given in to Devore’s advances and agreed to marry him after being heartbroken by Harold. When Harold happens to come across Devore’s wife, he rushes to stop Mary from marrying the bigamist. What follows is an absolutely masterful twenty minute chase sequence, one of the most spectacular in cinema history, as Harold commandeers every possible vehicle he can get his hands on, from cars to motorcycles to wagons to a firetruck to an out of control street car. Full of excellent stunts and sight gags, this epic, wonderfully inventive chase ends the film in a thrilling manner, an exciting climax to an otherwise gentle film.
With a well-constructed, charming romantic plot, a fascinatingly flawed protagonist, lots of funny gags, an all-time classic chase, and thoughtful and resonant commentary on gender dynamics and the short sighted ways in which men characterize women, Girl Shy is a terrifically entertaining film and an excellent showcase for the talents of one of the silent cinema’s greatest comedians.