Wednesday, August 26, 2015

For Heaven’s Sake (Harold Lloyd Productions/Paramount, 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago the Spreckels Organ Society presented the annual silent movie night at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, featuring a live organist (Donald MacKenzie, whose main gig is as the theatre organist on the Compton organ at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square, London — an organ Fats Waller recorded on!) accompanying a silent film and thereby bringing us as close as we’re going to get to what a silent film showing was like “in the day.” The film was For Heaven’s Sake, a marvelous 1926 comedy starring (and produced by) Harold Lloyd, and while the “official” director, Sam Taylor, had something of an independent reputation (he’d also worked for Mary Pickford and directed the 1929 film she and her then-husband, Douglas Fairbanks, did of The Taming of the Shrew — with the oft-ridiculed writing credit, “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”), for the most part it didn’t matter who was credited with directing a Harold Lloyd film since Lloyd himself was the auteur. I’ve noted in these pages before that most of the great silent comedians worked within a specific part of the class system — Charlie Chaplin was lower-class (once he worked out the “Tramp” character in his early days at Keynote and Essanay he played nothing else for two decades, until Modern Times in 1936), Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was working-class, Harold Lloyd was middle-class (usually he cast himself as a white-collar striver) and Buster Keaton was upper-class. But there were occasions when Keaton dropped down a notch and poached on Lloyd’s middle-class territory (including doing a 1927 film called College that was an out-and-out ripoff of Lloyd’s The Freshman), and in For Heaven’s Sake Lloyd poached on Keaton’s territory and cast himself as J. Harold Manners (I wondered if the name was a deliberate parody on the then-popular playwright J. Hartley Manners).

J. Harold Manners is a rich playboy who literally has more money than he knows what to do with. The character is introduced with a note that he’s bought a white car just so it will match his outfit, and when he wrecks that car he calmly walks into an auto showroom, sits down in the most expensive car on display, whips out a checkbook, writes a check for the full price and drives off in it. While he’s out in his new car it’s commandeered by the police and involved in a shootout with gangsters, only the cops abandon it and grab someone else’s car after Lloyd’s runs out of gas (typically cars in showrooms have very little gas in them so even if someone steals one, they can’t get very far in it), and it ends up stalled across a set of train tracks and, of course, is smashed into smithereens by a train. (Oddly Lloyd didn’t steal Keaton’s famous gag of having a train pass the car on an adjoining track without hurting it — and then another train coming the other way wrecking it. That would have made an already funny scene even funnier!) A newspaper runs a rather snippy column noting that J. Harold Manners bought — and totaled — two cars in one day, and invites readers to write him to suggest other ways he can spend his money. The item is noticed by Hope (Jobyna Ralston, the quite fine actress who replaced Lloyd’s previous leading lady, Mildred Davis, when she quit to become Mrs. Harold Lloyd for real), daughter of Brother Paul (Paul Weigel), who runs a pushcart dispensing free coffee to homeless people and wishes someone would give him enough money to start a mission. Manners comes to the “downtown” location (the titles say that in every city there’s an “uptown” where the rich people live and a “downtown” where the not-so-rich live), immediately falls in love with Hope at first sight, accidentally burns up Brother Paul’s pushcart and writes a check for $1,000 to pay for it and give him the money to start his mission.

Later he reads a newspaper headline that some rich guy has given some poor preacher $1,000 to fund a mission downtown — and Manners is dismissive of the whole thing, saying the guy probably gave the money just to get himself favorable publicity. Then he opens the whole paper and finds out he is the benefactor — what he intended as an anonymous donation has become anything but; there’s even a sign outside the building announcing it as the “J. Harold Manners Mission.” (Given the penchant for rich people today to slap their names on everything they fund, Manners’ reticence about the whole idea is refreshing.) Manners goes to the mission, starts tearing down the sign, and is confronted by Hope, who has no idea who he is and thinks he’s just a vandal. Then he meets Brother Paul, who does know who he is, thanks him and introduces him to his daughter, not knowing they’ve already met and she’s insulted him. Nonetheless, to get close to Hope, Manners becomes a volunteer at the mission. There are a few amusing scenes in which Manners accidentally eats his own powder puff (men were starting to use powder puffs in the 1920’s — a phenomenon credited to, or blamed on, Rudolph Valentino, leading to the infamous “Pink Powder Puffs” editorial that so incensed Valentino he literally challenged its author to a duel) and a cleaning sponge thinking they’re the pastries Hope has baked for the mission clients. Hope tells him that the real challenge would be to get the neighborhood’s criminal element, which mostly hangs out at Bob’s Pool Hall (which it’s hinted is also dispensing illegal alcoholic beverages — this was Prohibition, after all), into the mission — which he does, in a brilliantly conceived gag sequence, by insulting him all and having them chase him until he leads them into the mission. The film’s debt to Chaplin’s Easy Street is rather obvious, but it’s still very funny.

Eventually Manners proposes to Hope, she accepts, and they arrange to get married at the mission, with her dad performing the ceremony and the crooks they’ve redeemed — including their leader, “Bull” (played by Noah Young, though he looked so much like Nat Pendleton Charles and I thought it was he and even imagined hearing the lines in the dialogue title in Pendleton’s voice, with its weird mixture of toughness and whininess) serving as the witnesses and reception committee. Only three of Manners’ rich friends decide to kidnap him and thus “spare” him from the fate of marrying so far beneath him — and this sets up the final gag sequence, the funniest and most spectacular scene of the film, in which Manners and his ex-gangster friends commandeer various vehicles, including a bus, to get him to the mission before Hope assumes he’s abandoned her and calls off the wedding. Lloyd once complained that he’d made only six “thrill comedies” but those were the movies everyone remembered (and even people who’ve never seen a complete Harold Lloyd movie no doubt recall that iconic image of him dangling from the hands of the giant clock in Safety Last), and certainly this is one of his best and most exciting thrill sequences — indeed, Charles and I watched the tail end of this movie a few weeks earlier on TCM and we’d both said, “Gee, I’d really like to see the whole thing sometime.” For Heaven’s Sake isn’t one of Lloyd’s most strongly plotted movies, and it doesn’t have the surprising darkness of 1927’s The Kid Brother (especially its scenes on board a derelict ship, which reminded me so much of Murnau’s Nosferatu I wondered if Lloyd had seen it and was deliberately parodying it), but it’s screamingly funny. Maybe Lloyd didn’t have quite the depth as an actor or storyteller of Chaplin or Keaton, but so what? He was an efficient laugh machine and his films are generally delightful.