Monday, June 15, 2009

WHY WORRY? (1923)

American silent comedy is the ancestor of modern global action cinema. The linkage has been pointed out by such authorities as Jackie Chan, and the more I've thought about it, the influence grows more obvious, especially if you look at the stunt-oriented films of Buster Keaton. You can make the case that Keaton is the first "action hero," as opposed to swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and that The General is the first action movie in the modern sense of the word. Action movies as we know them come out of the period when Keaton was elevated above Chaplin by many critics and praised for his emphasis on technology and his anti-Chaplinesque unsentimentality. A generation of directors had to be influenced by all that talk. You could go to a further extreme, look at a budget-buster (no pun intended) like Steamboat Bill Jr. and argue that Keaton gone too far was the Jerry Bruckheimer of his day.

But other silent comics were nearly as action-oriented as Keaton. Many of Mack Sennett's shorts from the 1920s were little more than car chases, and lesser known producers made even more specialized films that we might recognize as action cinema. Harold Lloyd has also been acknowledged by Chan as an influence on his style. Lloyd is known for "thrill comedy," also emphasizing dangerous-looking stuntwork. That label makes it seem as if Lloyd was out to scare people by climbing the clock tower in Safety Last. But here is a film from 1923, Lloyd's last year with Hal Roach and the same year as Safety Last, that is more like an action film than a thrill picture, but with less emphasis on technology than on pure human action, and a pure human special effect that puts the fictional island nation of Paradiso on the map of the wild world of cinema.

Lloyd spent years refining his "glasses character" since he adopted it in place of his Lonesome Luke tramp persona in 1917. There never really was a single "Harold" persona, though. Just as Keaton could play parts across the class spectrum, Lloyd could do millionaires as well as small-town strivers. His films have in common the plot requirement that Harold man up at some point and do the right thing. In his first feature, Grandma's Boy, that meant he had to overcome cowardice with the help of a legend and a kind of placebo fetish. But Harold Van Pelham, the wealthy protagonist of Why Worry?, is no coward. To the contrary, he's often stupidly fearless, and that's one of the things I like about this film. At a certain point I got tired of comedians always being cowards, simply because there seems to be only a limited number of ways to be cowardly and funny at the same time. But though no coward, Harold still needs to man up, only from a different starting point.

Harold Van Pelham is a hypochondriac. He's on a huge regimen of medicine and has a full-time nurse (Jobyna Ralston) to tend to his every whim, along with a male servant who gets to do the cowardly bits in this picture -- don't panic, the guy is white. He's convinced that he's relentlessly sick, but he doesn't really show it. He seems jaunty and arrogant even when being wheeled about by Jobyna, as if he enjoys his supposed dire illness. His presumed invalidism is really a cinematic synonym for pure idleness. His privileged standing allows him to get away with doing nothing, apart from taking trips to exotic lands for health reasons. Harold will have to overcome irresponsibility, not cowardice, in his South American adventure.

As it develops, Harold is also a kind of Ugly American, not so much disrespectful but oblivious of local customs. He has a tendency to deal with everyone as if they're servants or someone's employees. He's used to being waited on or catered to. If war breaks out, he expects to be able to tell both sides to stop because he came to Paradiso to rest and the excitement is bad for his heart. His is such a pampered life that he seems to have no real concept of danger. He leans his belly on a cannon's mouth, for instance, to remonstrate against the men preparing to fire it. Harold is a jerk and you're meant to see him that way, but an essential innocence that comes with his irresponsibility redeems him -- at least by comparison with a real Ugly American. That would be Jim Blake, a "renegade American" who's conspiring to overthrow the Paradiso government to further his business interests. A consortium of international bankers is on to his scheme and has warned him that they're sending an agent to thwart it. Blake mistakes Harold for this agent and intends to have him killed. That's your plot.

Late in his career James Mason (as Blake, above) had to change his film name to Jim Mason, possibly to accommodate his then more famous British namesake. There seemed little point to the change, however, since the vast majority of Mason's work in B westerns in the sound era went uncredited. This may be the biggest role he ever had.

In a way, Why Worry? is more sophisticated than its makers probably realized. Lloyd's creative team of Sam Taylor and Fred Newmayer seem to realize that Americans often bring chaos to distant foreign backwaters like Paradiso. To give you some perspective, we're only about a decade removed from the setting of The Wild Bunch. Why Worry? acknowledges that some Americans abroad are pure predators, though in reality those were less likely to be "renegades" than the writers would like. Harold, in his clueless fashion, is as much a sower of chaos as Blake, but the film expresses a faith that these forces of chaos will cancel each other out or, better yet, that innate American virtue, however initially misguided, can overcome the evil influence of renegades. It's up to Americans, in fact, to clean up the messes they make.

So much for the analysis. You can now rest assured that it's good for you to see a silent comedy that kicks ass. Let's get the praise of Harold Lloyd out of the way right away. He's often diminished in comparison to Chaplin and Keaton because he was, the claim goes, a mere actor rather than a creative genius. Fine, but if acting means playing a distinctive character than Lloyd may have been a better actor than his two rivals. He totally sells Van Pelham's privileged sense of illness, as well as the fact that Harold is quite possibly shamming even to himself. He can do awesome facial expressions, as when he falls rapturously in love with an enraged Jobyna before our eyes when she finally stands up to his petty tyranny. I had better give credit to Ralston while I think of it for her first of many films with Lloyd. She has a character arc of a sort as well, transforming from Harold's meek minion to his partner in adventure after she's forced to dress in boy's clothes to avoid Blake's fate-worse-than-death attentions. Seeing a real crisis explode around her and experiencing real danger rouses her to prod Harold toward the moment when he will finally man up in her defense for a fierce fight with Blake, only to be told afterward, "Why didn't you tell me that I love you?"

I've saved the best for last. Anyone with a sense of film history may have three iconic visions of Harold Lloyd in his or her head. Everyone, I suspect, can see him hanging from the clock. They may think of him in his battered football uniform from The Freshman. Finally, they may recollect Harold standing next to a giant or firing a cannon mounted on the giant's back. That's Why Worry? and the giant's name is John Aasen.

He was reportedly the second choice for the part of Colosso the hermit who for some reason Blake's rebels needed to throw in jail. The giant originally cast for the part dropped dead. Aasen himself only lived to age 48, but he was 33 here and is a genuine physical marvel. Publicity claimed that he was over eight feet tall, but seeing him next to Lloyd, I'd guess he actually wasn't much over seven. That's still pretty impressive looking, especially given how well he moves in this film. He may benefit from the speeded up projection of silent movies, but however it came about his may be the most dynamic performance by a big man in all cinema.

He's introduced being hauled laboriously into prison by about a dozen men, it being explained that his capture was possible only because Colosso is dazed by the pain of a severe toothache. Harold, thrown into the same cell, having thought he was being conducted to a hotel, quickly sizes up his man (a tall order, of course) and orders him to help him escape.

Freed, he finally notices Colosso's affliction and is overwhelmed by empathy. "Isn't it wonderful?" he enthuses, "You're sick, too." But Colosso's condition is curable, though Harold is forced to undergo an ordeal of sight gags before the offending tooth is removed.

Colosso is afterward the proverbial loyal lion and a one-man army with which Harold intervenes against Blake's coup attempt. He flings cannons over walls. He bowls over troops with cannonballs while Harold keeps score. He lands devastating punches, pounds on soldiers like Kong pounding on the El, uses men as missile weapons or as swinging clubs. I may have to revise my history and declare John Aasen the first action hero for this sustained run of mayhem. It is a joy to behold.

The only thing I can fault Why Worry? for is running about ten minutes too long. The story has been pretty much wrapped up at about the 51 minute mark as Colosso has destroyed Blake's army and Harold has destroyed Blake. But by now there was a competition among the comedians to make feature films, and Roach and Lloyd needed to get this one past the 60 minute mark to qualify. So they try to top themselves in what proves an anticlimactic manner as Harold, Colosso and Jobyna fend off a second army, relying mainly on deception rather than raw power this time. The one thing that keeps this last act amusing is Jobyna's delegation to Colosso of responsibility for feeding Harold pills every two minutes in the middle of the battle. The payoff is Harold's final rejection of pill-taking and his ultimate realization that he was never as sick as he wanted to be. So the film sputters a bit, but so much before then was too good to be outweighed by a disappointing finale.

Why Worry? will reward viewers who overcome any lingering aversion to black and white movies, films without spoken dialogue or slapstick comedy. It may not be politically correct in its portrayal of Latin America as the land of siestas and incompetent armies, but let's face it: even the American characters are stereotypes. Comedy often paints with broad strokes, and the filmmakers seem conscious that they're dealing with already well-established cliches. If it reminds you of something out of a pulp adventure magazine, it probably reminded 1923 audiences of the same thing, on purpose. Approach it in the right spirit, and it's a blast almost from beginning to end.


The Vicar of VHS said...

This post takes me back, Samuel--when I was a kid PBS used to show silent comedies every Saturday afternoon--in fact it may have even been "The Harold Lloyd Show" for a while (I can only assume the local affiliate bought a HL package). As a result I got to see a lot of Lloyd's shorts and have always counting him my favorite of the silent comedy stars. I mean, I appreciate Keaton and Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy and all, but Lloyd has the nostalgia working for him. Also, he's pretty damn funny.

I never thought of the silent stars as action-film prototypes, but it totally fits. These guys were doing some crazy stuff, even if it's not *quite* as crazy as they made it look. The confidence and bravery they displayed is a lesson to us all.

Recently I saw a book at B&N representative of some of Lloyd's post-retirement hobbies: namely, 3-D red/blue photos of nude models. I hope I find such an interesting hobby to pass the time with when I retire. ;) I would have bought the book on the spot, had the tithes at the vicarage been up to snuff that month. ;)

Samuel Wilson said...

Lloyd experimented with 3-D home movies, too, and the New Line box set comes with a set of glasses to examine them with. Unfortunately, the content is pretty disappointing compared to what's in that book.

In an earlier post I equated the evolution of silent comedy to action cinema to the evolution of birds into dinosaurs, so it's not surprising that the likes of Lloyd and Keaton don't strike anyone (except the somewhat similarly built Jackie Chan) as action-film prototypes. The end point of the process would probably be someone like John Aasen as the star -- or maybe Shaq with a machine gun.