Always the mama's boy, or in this case a grandma's boy, Sonny joins a posse after a tramp accused of robbery and murder. He is unable to conquer his cowardice until Grandma tells him of his grandfather, also a coward, who overcame his fears with the help of a magic amulet. With new courage (and the charm), Sonny captures the fugitive and becomes the hero of the day. Written by
Herman Seifer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Harold Lloyd's feature film debut is a first-rate silent comedy
About 20 years ago I was fortunate enough to see Harold Lloyd's first feature-length film, Grandma's Boy, at a public screening. I recall that it went over very well with the audience, that Harold was highly sympathetic in the lead role, and that I found the movie pleasant and engaging, with a stronger plot than some of Lloyd's later features. Now that I've rediscovered the film on DVD it's a pleasure to report that it holds up beautifully and, unlike some silent comedies, plays well on TV. Grandma's Boy is a richly atmospheric period piece that is sweet, funny, and suspenseful, and certainly ranks with Lloyd's best work. It's all the more impressive that this was his first attempt at a full-length feature, for it marks a genuine stylistic break with the sort of thing he'd been making up to this point. Unlike some of Harold's earlier, "gag happy" short comedies, this film offers a well structured story built around recognizable human beings who inhabit a basically realistic world. The story is more character-driven than gag-driven, and more relaxed in tempo than most of Lloyd's earlier films. Admittedly, some of the characters are a little cartoon-y, but they don't behave outlandishly or pick fights at the drop of a hat in order to get laughs. And while there are certainly plenty of laughs along the way, everything seems to unfold naturally, and nothing feels forced.
Grandma's Boy is set in the sleepy rural village of Blossom Bend, which, we are told, is "one of those slow towns where the Tuesday morning Express arrives Wednesday afternoon. If Monday's train gets out of the way." Except for a brief prologue and a flashback to the Civil War, the story takes place when the film was made, that is, in 1922, but in the sort of Town That Time Forgot that might have looked like a quaint throwback to some viewers even then. Harold plays a young man who lives with his grandmother, and is the kind of guy who would be called a wimp -- or worse -- nowadays. The prologue dramatizes Harold's lifelong reluctance to defend himself from bullies. He's a coward, he knows it, and he's miserable about it. On the other hand, Harold's grandmother is a peppery old lady who is not to be trifled with. (Anna Townsend plays this role, and she's wonderful). Grandma sympathizes with the boy's plight, yet also realizes she's coddled him long enough, and that he must find the courage within himself, even if getting him to that point requires trickery on her part.
This movie paints a nostalgic picture of small town life that was never so simple in reality, but, like the story of Tom Sawyer, it holds the powerful appeal of life as we wish it was. Period charm is a major element of the film's strength, but in order to appreciate it fully a modern viewer needs a certain amount of historical perspective. For example: during one scene, when Harold is forced to wear his grandfather's ancient suit to a party, his embarrassment may be hard for some to understand. The other party-goers think he looks strange in his 19th century frock coat, but their own clothing looks just as odd to us as Harold's "old-fashioned" suit does to them, especially the leading lady's massive hair ribbon. (Did that thing look funny to some viewers, even in 1922? I'll bet the flappers thought so!)
The film's best known sequence is a flashback to the Civil War, as Harold's Grandma tells him of his grandfather's exploits behind enemy lines. This is the funniest segment, deliberately played in a "heightened" manner like a hokey stage melodrama. I was especially fascinated by the witch who helps Harold's grandfather triumph over his enemies; she wears heavy stage makeup, emotes like crazy, and looks like she must have a gingerbread house somewhere back in the woods. All of this wacky over-playing is acceptable, dramatically speaking, because we eventually learn that Grandma's story is, well, not entirely true. It's interesting that Lloyd and his colleagues took this approach to the Civil War sequence, but the motivation is not hard to imagine: when this film was made there were plenty of actual Civil War veterans still around, and the war and its aftermath lingered as a painful memory for many. Perhaps the filmmakers chose to treat the war scenes as exaggerated melodrama in order to make the material more palatable to contemporary audiences. A few years later, when Buster Keaton made The General, he chose to treat the war with almost documentary-like realism while dropping black comedy gags into the mix, and some critics of the day felt his approach was in poor taste. Lloyd's version of the war is quite different from Keaton's but valid in its own way, and may well have influenced Keaton when he made his masterpiece.
As memorable as the Civil War sequence is, the most gripping section of the film depicts Harold's transformation from coward to hero, as he manages to subdue a dangerous tramp who has been terrorizing the town. (The tramp is played by Dick Sutherland, an enormous actor with an unforgettable face.) This is a terrifically suspenseful sequence, alternately funny and thrilling, and it's followed by a deeply satisfying finale in which this lifelong sissy applies the lessons he learned in dealing with the tramp to the bully who has tormented him since boyhood. And don't miss the delightful closing gag! Grandma's Boy is a film that leaves the viewer with a warm glow, one of the best movies Harold Lloyd ever made, and one of the top comedies of the silent era.
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