Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hot Water (Harold Lloyd/Pathé, 1924)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s concert at the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion in San Diego was a typically well-attended “Movie Night” featuring the 1924 Harold Lloyd comedy Hot Water, with live organ accompaniment by the irrepressible Dennis James. The show followed the usual format of these appearances: the first set (as the sun is in the final stages of going down and rendering the outdoor Organ Pavilion dark enough to screen a movie) is a mini-concert of theatre organ music by James and the second half is the film showing. James played a few familiar pieces at the start of his program — Harry Warren’s “Hooray for Hollywood!” from the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel (the first of two collaborations between Busby Berkeley and Benny Goodman — The Gang’s All Here from 1943 was the other — and a song that’s become a sort of all-purpose tribute to Hollywood’s glory days), Felix Arndt’s “Nola” (a piece that he said intimidated him when he was an amateur pianist at age 14 trying to learn to play ragtime from watching the woman pianist, Jo Ann Castle, who played on the Lawrence Welk Show) and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” which inevitably got presented as a tribute to the recently deceased Marvin Hamlisch, who arranged “The Entertainer” and several other Joplin rags as the soundtrack music for the film The Sting, and apparently composed several themes for the movie himself and had to write in Joplin’s style so they would blend in. Incidentally, Dennis James credited Hamlisch with having the idea to use Joplin’s music as the soundtrack score for The Sting —which was not the version of the story I’d heard before: the story I’d heard was that the son of George Roy Hill, the film’s director, had bought a copy of Joshua Rifkin’s revelatory 1971 album Piano Rags of Scott Joplin, which slowed down the tempi and played without “prepared” pianos or the other sonic gimmicks that had been used in previous ragtime recordings (especially in the 1950’s when the last ragtime revival had taken place). Hill Sr. came home while his son was playing this record and asked him what it was. His son told him and then, inevitably, said, “Dad, why did you want to know?” Hill said, “Because I’m preparing a movie called The Sting, and I think this music would be perfect for its score” — and only then did Hill hire Hamlisch to arrange the Joplin music for the film. (Hamlisch did a beautiful job; aside from a prominent piano part his arrangements are quite close to those put out by Stark, Joplin’s publisher, in the so-called “Red Back Book” published while Joplin was alive, and Hamlisch’s version of “The Entertainer” became a number one singles hit.)

Then James started dredging up the rarities: Zez Confrey’s “Dizzy Fingers” (James stood in for the audience’s mock disbelief that anybody could be named “Zez” — his real name was Edward Elzear Confrey and “Zez” was his own invention, a coinage that seems to capture the insouciant spirit of early-1920’s culture in general and his music in particular), Louis Claude Daquin’s “The Cuckoo” (Daquin was a Baroque composer, a contemporary of J. S. Bach, but “The Cuckoo” was a novelty piece — James joked about Daquin dedicating it to his wife and later used it effectively during the movie whenever the cuckoo clock on the wall of Harold Lloyd’s living room went off), a medley of something called “Mice on the Keys” (an offtake of Confrey’s biggest hit, “Kitten on the Keys,” by a Dutch composer whose name I wrote down as Johann Leong) and something else (considerably more rambunctious) called “Bahama Buggy Ride” by someone named (again, if I was able to transcribe what Dennis James was saying with any degree of accuracy) Johnny Staguola, and as his finale a piece called “The Midnight Fire Alarm” by Henry J. Lincoln, a specialist in composing stock scores for silent films that went out to theatres so their resident musicians (the most expensive theatres had full orchestras, the next rung down had theatre organs, the next rung down from that usually had piano trios and the cheapest theatres had a single piano) could patch them into the live accompaniments with (one hoped) some degree of appropriateness. James announced that there was a scene in the movie in which a fire truck (an old-fashioned one drawn by horses) appeared and he was going to use that as the music for that sequence — which he did, though frankly “The Midnight Fire Alarm” was a rollicking march that to me would have seemed more appropriate for a circus than a fire truck. (At least there was no actual fire shown in the film; if there had been, the accompanists “in the day” might have used something else — perhaps, given their penchant for borrowing from the classics as needed, the Magic Fire Music from Wagner’s Die Walküre.)

Dennis James also gave a Robert Osborne-ish introduction to Hot Water, saying that it was made in 1924, when Harold Lloyd was still new to features and apparently had been criticized for having made his last films too “serious” and not put enough laughs in them (a criticism another bespectacled comedian, Woody Allen, would have to deal with as well). He had come out in a loud white suit and a straw hat as well as a pair of glasses, the idea being to make him look like Lloyd — though he joked that the glasses were “not even my prescription,” and I pointed out to Charles that Lloyd’s weren’t, either: once we got to see the movie it was clear that Lloyd’s trademark “glasses” were just empty frames so that during interior scenes light wouldn’t reflect off them and black out Lloyd’s eyes. James said that Lloyd was unsure whether he would be able to succeed in a feature, so he made Hot Water an episodic story so that, though it had the same characters throughout, if it didn’t work as a feature it could be cut up into three two-reelers and released that way. This rang false to me: Lloyd had made his feature debut in Grandma’s Boy in 1922 and it had been a blockbuster hit, the year after that he’d made Safety Last (still his most popular film; the archetypal image of Lloyd in that movie, hanging off the arms of a clock that is detaching itself from its niche atop a skyscraper under the gravity from Lloyd’s weight, is the one that immediately comes to mind when Lloyd’s name is mentioned), and Hot Water was his fifth feature. James also said that in terms of the amount of money he made, Lloyd was the most popular comedian of the silent era — which was contrary to what I’d heard before: sources I’d read previously said that Charlie Chaplin was the most popular silent comedian and second was Fatty Arbuckle, despite the scandal that foreshortened his career in 1922. (Both could be right: Chaplin could have made more money than Lloyd on each film, and Lloyd could have made more money overall, simply because he made so many more films: once Chaplin went into features he only released one movie about every three to five years, where Lloyd put out at least one a year and sometimes two in one year.)

Hot Water begins with a printed title expressing a surprisingly cynical view about marriage: “Marriage is like dandruff — it falls heavily upon your shoulders — you get a lot of free advice about it — but up to date nothing has been found to cure it.” (Judging from this and the overall theme of the film, it would be hard to believe that the year before he made it Lloyd had married his former leading lady, Mildred Davis — a marriage that would last until her death in 1969, two years before he died. Out of the legendary male silent comedians — Chaplin, Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon — Lloyd was the only one who married just once.) Then we see a scene at a church where the bride-to-be, her family and the minister are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the groom — and [surprise!] the groom is not Harold Lloyd; Lloyd is the best man, spouting more cynical wisecracks about matrimony and wondering why his friend is literally rushing into it. He swears he’ll never let a woman entrap him with “soft-egg eyes,” and then he trips over the outstretched leg of a young woman (played by Jobyna Ralston, who took over as his leading lady once Mildred Davis retired to marry him; as I’ve noted previously on the Lloyd films, it worked out both personally and professionally because he and Davis had a long, happy marriage, and Ralston was a much better actress). In the next scene Lloyd and Ralston (they’re referred to in the credits only as “Hubby” and “Wifey”) are already married and ensconced in a comfortable suburban home — only “Wifey” calls “Hubby” while he’s at work and asks him to pick up “just a few” items for dinner before he comes home.

Our Hero suddenly finds himself inundated with a long list of things that pops up, one item after another, on the intertitle (Chaplin and Keaton seemed to regard intertitles as a necessary evil of silent film but Lloyd tried to make his genuinely funny in their own right) — and he’s next seen at the grocer, his arms visibly weighed down as he tries to figure out how to carry all the stuff his wife told him to buy. The burden gets even worse when the grocer announces that he’s bought so much he’s entitled to a free raffle ticket on a live turkey — which, of course, he wins and has to figure out a way to bring home on the streetcar (the fact that this film was made when Los Angeles, where it takes place, had streetcars is enough of a nostalgic wrench in itself!) — only his packages get in so many people’s way and he has to lure the turkey out from between the legs of the woman under which it’s hid that he ends up getting thrown off the streetcar and having to walk home. Then, in a film that does seem rather like three episodes of a TV sitcom loosely stacked together, it’s established that he’s about to take delivery of a new car — only he’s also taken delivery of three singularly obnoxious members of his wife’s family: her dragon-lady mother-in-law (Josephine Crowell), her older brother (Charles Stevenson) — described in the titles as someone who gets up at 4 a.m. so he’ll have more time to loaf — and her younger brother (Mickey McBan) who uses his pea-shooter to create as much havoc as possible. Harold wants to take his wife for a spin in the new car once it arrives, only the Terrible Trio horn in and insist on joining them, and by the time they’re finished they’ve had some hair’s-breath escapes (the closest this film comes to the “thrill” comedy for which Lloyd was famous), only the car ends up a wreck and has to be towed back to the Lloyd home. (When his next-door neighbor presents him with a photo he took of the family in the spanking-new car just before they left, Lloyd tears up the print in disgust.)

The third, and by far the funniest, part of the film occurs when the neighbor gives Lloyd a flask and offers it to him to give him the “courage” to throw his mother-in-law and her two sons out of his house — and when Lloyd takes a short swallow the neighbor says that’s not enough to give him any courage and he should have more. Lloyd accordingly drains almost the entire flask — causing the neighbor to say, “You know what the upkeep is on a flask like that?” — and his facial contortions as the booze goes down his throat may well have been intended as a deliberate parody of John Barrymore’s in the 1920 Paramount film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Of all the great silent comedians, Lloyd seems to have been the most inveterate watcher of other people’s movies; one of his darkest films, The Kid Brother from 1927, contains a long scene on a ship that seems to be a parody of Murnau’s sinister Nosferatu.) This is right after mother-in-law has returned from delivering a public lecture on the evils of drink and the need for strict enforcement of Prohibition, and she solemnly informs her daughter that she should divorce her husband if he shows any signs of imbibing the Demon Rum — and it leads to a loony scene in which Lloyd gets a bottle of chloroform the kid brother had been using to pull pranks and soaks his mother-in-law’s handkerchief with it, intending merely to put her under and shut her up for a while — only he freaks out and thinks he’s killed her. He overhears the older brother, who’d previously offered to fix the three traffic tickets he got on his wild ride in the now-wrecked car, say, “There’s nothing that can be done? He’ll just have to take what’s coming to him.” When the mother-in-law revives, she’s actually walking in her sleep (it’s previously been established that she’s a somnambulist) but she’s dressed in a white nightgown and has her hand in front of her, and Lloyd — who’s just been looking at a magazine cover advertising an article called, “Do the Dead Return?” (remember that the early 1920’s were a really “in” time for spiritualism, rivaling the 1970’s in that regard, with Rudolph Valentino publicizing spiritualist and what would later be called New Age beliefs much the way Shirley MacLaine did in the 1970’s), and he’s become convinced that he killed her and she’s a ghost haunting him for it. This part of the film is shot by Walter Lundin in a rich, chiaroscuro, almost Gothic style anticipating film noir and adding to rather than taking away from the comedy — and here Lloyd shows the lost art even the most mediocre silent comics had of building one gag on top of another, carefully taking the audience through the various steps of laughter until they’re almost literally screaming on the floor. As it builds, Hot Water changes from a nice, amusing spoof of marriage and in-laws into a bizarrely macabre movie that manages at once to create some surprisingly dark images and situations and get laughs from them.

It’s also an indication of how the people usually acknowledged as the three great geniuses of silent comedy — Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd (though some critics, including me, would add Langdon to that list) — all demarcated themselves in very different places in the class structure: Chaplin as the lower-class “Tramp,” Keaton (in many, though not all, of his films) as the upper-class twit redeemed by contact with the proletariat and being put into situations in which he had to use his wits to survive; and Lloyd very solidly in the middle class — we don’t find out what he does for a living but he evidently has a job, and a well-paying enough one that he can afford a nice house and a car (“Just 59 more payments and it’s ours!” he informs his wife when it’s delivered, thereby setting up a fate for it we know in advance but it’s still outrageously funny and a bit pathetic to see work out on screen). His work here anticipates the TV sitcoms of the 1950’s — at least the ones that starred people who were not only effective comic actors but brilliant physical comedians in their own right (like Lucille Ball and Red Skelton)— but it’s also outrageously funny in a way today’s so-called “comedies” are not. Watching a great silent comedy like Hot Water it’s evident that, while there have been tradeoffs in the evolution of movie dramas (between the subtlety enforced by the Production Code on classic-era filmmakers and the greater frankness with which sexual relationships in particular can now be treated on screen), when it comes to comparing classic and modern comedies, there’s no contest at all: the art of making movie audiences laugh seems almost totally gone (except for occasional freaks like Little Miss Sunshine, Stranger than Fiction or Kabluey) and the art of making movie audiences laugh without reference to sex or involuntary body functions is totally gone.