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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 Lloyd's earlier films.
Admittedly, some of the rural 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
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 would 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 is wonderful). Grandma sympathizes with the boy's plight, yet also comes to realize that she has coddled him long enough, and that he must be tricked into finding the courage within himself.
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 portion of Grandma's Boy, 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 reasons for doing so are 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 jokey 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 still 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.
GRANDMA'S BOY is a terribly timid fellow until the old
decides to instill some much needed courage into him.
This sweetly poignant and very funny film started off as a two-reeler, but star Harold Lloyd, with the approval of producer Hal Roach, kept adding gags until the completed picture ran about an hour. Harold also wanted something else - to instill a serious element to the story and his character, an innovation new to American comedy films.
He succeeded brilliantly, with the finished film a joy, blending the hilarious and the sentimental seamlessly. As always, Harold is a special treat to watch, his amazing athletic abilities made even more impressive by the fact that he was missing half of his right hand. The plot makes Harold deal with both a contemptible bully and a vicious tramp, giving our hero full opportunity for running, falling, leaping & almost endless fisticuffs, all of which he carries off with great skill and good humor. And just to show that his bag of tricks is not depleted Harold throws in an uproarious Civil War flashback to delight the viewer.
Lovely Mildred Davis plays the girl of Harold's dreams. Charles Stevenson as the Rival and Dick Sutherland as the Tramp both make wonderful villains. Noah Young, who so often played the heavy in Harold's films, here has the relatively small role as the sheriff of Blossom Bend. Best of all is sweet elderly Anna Townsend, playing Harold's little darling of a grandma; whether attacking the Tramp with a broom or rejoicing at her grandson's newly found courage, she remains the heart of this very special movie. Anna Townsend would die the following year, 1923, at the age of 78.
Robert Israel has composed an excellent film score which perfectly complements Harold's antics on the screen.
Another fun Lloyd movie, set in the standard small, rural town of silent movies. (I always wonder how close those were to reality.) Lloyd is endearing as a timid boy, and displays some fine acting as well as comic ability. Anna Townsend as Lloyd's grandma is refreshingly both tough and likeable, a bonus for the modern female viewer. Mildred Davis (Lloyd's future wife) doesn't have a huge part, but plays it well. (Though I wonder about the childlike clothes she wears; would anyone over 13 really have sported a massive hair bow in 1922?) The movie seems to have had great influence: the civil-war sequence must have been an inspiration for Keaton's "The General", and a flashback to Harold's boyhood shows how his distinctive bespectacled look even helped create Harry Potter. As usual, several good animal actors. There is one joke--having to do with a white family's black butler--that is in kind of questionable taste, but it could be construed as more of a comment on class than race. You'll enjoy watching this with your kids (or without!)
Although the similarity of this plot to several other Lloyd films is
obvious (thus preventing it from getting a rating of 10), this is still
one of Harold Lloyd's best. What sets this apart from many comedies of
the same era is that it is NOT jam-packed with laughs but takes a more
leisurely pace and tells a sweet story. Our hero, Lloyd, is a wimp with
little self-confidence. His loving grandmother gives him Grandpa's good
luck charm--saying it will give him strength and courage. As a result
he is able to help the town look for a dangerous desperado and in the
process prove to his girl that he is indeed a man.
Great cinematography, pacing and excellent laughs all work together to make this his best film up until that time. Plus, unlike most comedies of the time, this one is quite artistic and sweet.
GRANDMA'S BOY is among the first silent comedies that focus on characterization. It is also Lloyd's breakthrough picture which set him on the rank of Chaplin and Keaton and we can easily see why. It's full of tightly linked, ingenious gags( even where he put his hat would serve as a link to later action ). It also keeps some acrobatic movements that reminds us of Lloyd's 2 reeler days. It has a strong story line, and consistent plot development and delicate performance from Lloyd as well. The Grandpa's Civil war episode is truly funny.
I think the best overall summary would be to call this a dramatic comedy. Harold Lloyd displays accomplished slapstick while at the same time being involved in the drama of catching a tramp causing a lot of problems for the town. An ongoing subplot involves the used-to-be school bully (now grown up) who continues to bully Harold and does his best to take his girl from him. It is not until Harold's grandma tells him about a special amulet that his grandfather used in the Civil War and got his courage from that he gets up the courage to take after the tramp and take on the bully. All of the action involves numerous slapstick antics that really make the movie. Yet, with all of that, the point still comes across that things don't give us courage and abilities. We get our courage to act from within ourselves. This movie reinforces that there were very good silent movies made and we can learn from them and have a lot of laughs at the same time.
"Grandma's Boy" is an entertaining Harold Lloyd comedy that combines
plenty of his usual slapstick antics with some thoughtful, if simple,
ideas that add another dimension. Lloyd's character is more sympathetic
than usual, and the story is funny, includes some good action, and is
occasionally reflective. While it does not have any dazzling sequences
(such as in "Safety Last"), it succeeds quite well on its own level.
Lloyd gives a good performance as always, with his hapless but earnest character. The rest of the cast helps out as well. Charles Stevenson is suitably overbearing as Lloyd's rival, Mildred Davis is likable as his girlfriend, and Anna Townsend is believable as his grandmother, determined to help out her boy. The amusing story that she tells about Harold's grandfather is one of the highlights, and it is used quite well in the plot.
The rest of the story is good as well, and all in all this is an enjoyable little feature.
Harold Lloyd's first great feature pits him in his ideal homespun
setting with a simple and archetypal plot in which the mild-mannered
Boy gradually learns to overcome his cowardice - with the help of his
loving grandmother - to become the toast of the town; in this respect,
it predates the star's more celebrated THE FRESHMAN (1925) in being,
above all, character-driven (with a dash of sentimentality). That said,
perhaps the film's most hilarious scene is a typical one in which both
Lloyd and his rival for the affections of leading lady Mildred Davis
unwittingly mistake moth-balls from Lloyd's ancient costume (which had
belonged to his grandfather) for sweets.
It's climaxed, however, by three lengthy and impressive set-pieces: the Civil War feat of the hero's grandfather (also played by Lloyd and remarkably anticipating Keaton's THE GENERAL ); the chase leading up to the capture of the town bully by the newly-brave Lloyd (brought about by the presence of a Zuni doll - more than 50 years before such an artifact would achieve immortality via the classic made-for-TV compendium TRILOGY OF TERROR !); and our hero's settling of accounts with his mean-spirited rival, which features some rather physical tussling for this kind of film. As ever with Lloyd, apart from providing the requisite attention to gag structure and the creation of atmosphere, the film results in being quite technically proficient.
I saw "Grandma's Boy" as the main feature in a Harold Lloyd double bill
at the Pickwick Theatre in Park Ridge, Illinois as part of a summer
silent film festival. (It was paired with the 1920 short, "Number,
Please?") First of all, let's keep festivals like that alive.
As for the movie....Pretty much any Harold Lloyd movie is worth your time, but I have to admit this wasn't one of his better efforts. He plays a wimp who finally learns to stand up for himself after his grandmother gives him a magical charm formerly belonging to his grandfather. This is a slow, talky film (if you can describe a silent as "talky," but you know what I mean) and doesn't have nearly as many of those delightful stunts and pratfalls that the best Lloyd movies are known for. See it if you're a Lloyd fan, but if you're new to him, there are better introductions and just know that you're not seeing him at his best here.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Harold Lloyd, wearing his black-rimmed glasses, has been a coward since
infancy. When he is shyly romancing the girl he loves, he's easy shoved
out of the way by the town bully. Then a real heavy appears -- Dick
Sutherland, the tramp known as "Rolling Stone." Man, is he big and
ugly. His features are over-sized and he looks a little Negroid. He
makes himself at home in Grandma's front yard and Grandma tells Lloyd
to get rid of him. Rolling Stone has only to look cross-eyed at Lloyd
to send him running off, leaving it up to the frail little Grandma to
beat him out of the yard with a broom.
But Rolling Stone is more than merely an unwelcome guest. He is robbing a jewelry store on Main Street that night. Two men interrupt him (those were the days) and Rolling Stone shoots one of them down.
A posse is formed and they search around for the tramp but they're all petrified of the monster. No one is more scared that Lloyd. But Grandma pumps up his self confidence with a story of Lloyd's grandfather, who became a hero in the Civil War with the help of a magic amulet called Zuni. I take it as coincidental that Zuni is also the name of a Pueblo community in the American Southwest. You know, like the Hopi? Katchina dolls? Lloyd accidentally encounters the murderer and captures him by pretending to have a pistol. He brings the tramp into town on a baby's stroller and Rolling Stone winds up safely in the slams. An interesting fist fight then takes place between Lloyd and the rival for his girl's affections. Lloyd wins by the simple expedient of always getting back up and rushing in for more after he's been knocked down. Sometimes Nothing can be a real cool hand. Lloyd wins the fight and the girl.
Some reviewers have called this thoughtful but I'm not sure why. The ending might have been considered "thoughtful" if, say, Lloyd discovered he'd lost the Zuni amulet during one of his many scuffles and had won because of his own intestinal fortitude. But that isn't what happens. At one point, finding that the amulet is gone from his pocket, he immediately reverts to his cowardly self and begins scrabbling about, looking for it, until he finds it and turns heroic again.
Nevertheless, it's funny. Some of the gags aren't well integrated into the plot. (Lloyd and his rival both mistakenly munching moth balls.) But no matter. I always have to admire masterful silent film comedians like Lloyd, Keaton, and Chaplin. Once you get past the pratfalls and slapstick, how do you make an amusing movie without using words? It must be an inherent talent, like Mozart's musical aptitude.
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