Back in the years before the advent of the talking picture, Hollywood had three kings of comedy: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the relatively forgotten Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was arguably the most successful, in his day. He made 11 silent features, from 1921 through 1928, including his classics “Safety Last!” (1923) and “The Freshman” (1925). In the same period, Chaplin — struggling with divorce, paternity and artistic blocks — was able to complete only four features. Only four, yes; but they included “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush.”
Many great comics led tortured existences; Lloyd, apparently, didn’t. This despite a difficult childhood, with his father’s chronic unemployment and divorce causing the lad to be displaced so frequently that he apparently attended 25 different schools. In 1919, as he was approaching stardom, Lloyd suffered a disfiguring accident at a publicity shoot, with a bomb blowing away the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Even so, Lloyd made it to the top of the Hollywood game, and — after negotiating a lucrative new contract in 1922 — became owner of his films outright. This made him inordinately wealthy, allowing him to build himself a 16-acre Beverly Hills Xanadu he called Greenacres. When his talents proved less adaptable to talking pictures, Lloyd eagerly turned to other endeavors, including photography and philanthropy.
Chaplin and Keaton had their demons, which were in some ways reflected in their work (and which has kept them in the forefront through the decades). Lloyd’s films are built on entertainment and thrills; things move fast, with Harold scrambling to keep up. If Lloyd is lesser-known today, one of the iconic shots from the American cinema is the horn-rimmed Harold dangling from the arms of a clock, high above the roaring streets of downtown Los Angeles.
“Safety Last!” was the film, one of Lloyd’s finest. “The Freshman” might be my favorite, with Harold fighting his way onto the gridiron and — as always — emerging triumphant. “Speedy,” too, was a major hit in its day, and includes not only location shots of 1928 New York but a cameo by Babe Ruth. Yes, Chaplin retains first place with me; but Lloyd has laughs, charms and thrills. New Line has come out with a handsome seven-DVD set, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection. Included are 15 feature films (highlighted by “The Freshman” and “Safety Last!”); 13 shorts; and “a treasure trove of extras such as Harold Lloyd’s home movies, star tributes, photo galleries, all-new interviews and featurettes and rare 3-D photos with a pair of 3-D photo glasses.” Not surprisingly, this collection can hold your attention for hours.
Somewhere among the list of the less indispensable films of Alfred Hitchcock comes Lifeboat [Fox], the World War II drama he made in 1944 (between “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Spellbound”). Hitchcock set himself a claustrophobic challenge, placing the action on an over-crowded lifeboat in the North Atlantic, fleeing the Nazis. How do you create scenes between different characters, with nowhere else to send the others? How do you get visual variety? One can see how this might have been somewhat more interesting to the filmmaker than it is to audiences.
Even so, Hitchcock — working from a story by John Steinbeck — manages to come up with a pretty riveting 90 minutes. The film is graced by the unlikely presence of Tallulah Bankhead. Tallulah is one of those stage actresses we’ve heard about, again and again, but relatively few of us ever got to see. (She last appeared on Broadway, for five performances, in Tennessee Williams’ 1964 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.) Here she is, five years after her stage triumph in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. While Hitchcock might not bring forth her all-time best performance, she certainly commandeers the action and the camera.
With Tallulah playing against people like William Bendix, we have some interesting acting scenes. Playgoers who grew up watching crusty old Hume Cronyn playing character roles in this and that and the other, will be especially interested in watching him here, in his early thirties. “Lifeboat” also gives you the chance to see Henry Hull, star of Broadway’s legendary-but-forgotten Tobacco Road.
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I sometimes find it difficult to pass by those severely discounted collections of public domain DVDs you see on the bargain tables in the chain discount stores. You know, the $10 box sets claiming “17 features! over 20 hours!” and the like. How likely is it to find anything of interest, though? Passing through one of the Marts recently — no, not Wal — I found a bin with “Classic Heartthrobs,” “Romance Classics,” “Strong Silent Types” and more. No luck, unless you’re a fan of Edmond O’Brien. Comedy Classics wasn’t any more promising, especially with a cover photo of Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy.
But near the end of the list of contents on the back of the box, amongst the likes of “Never Wave at a WAC” and “The Nasty Rabbit” — which, I must say, is pretty ghastly — comes “New Faces.” That’s the slightly revised screen version of failure-prone producer Leonard Sillman’s one hit, New Faces of 1952. While the revue was given a wisp of a plot for screen purposes, it includes most of the sketches and most of the performers. So, here are Eartha Kitt, looking striking and somewhat unearthly as she sings up a cyclone; Ronny Graham, acting and singing and sketch-writing (the last in tandem with one “Melvin J. Brooks”); Alice Ghostley, singing Sheldon Harnick’s immortal “Boston Beguine”; Robert Clary, singing with charm but mugging so ferociously that he makes Paul Lynde look like Judith Anderson; Paul Lynde himself, and pretty good as an ersatz Lee J. Cobb; and even Carol Lawrence, dancing up a non-storm — including a tap version of the “Boston Beguine”!
Brooks, already an accomplished TV writer, made something of a stir with his sketch “Of Fathers and Sons.” This was a spoof of Death of a Salesman, about a family of pickpockets distraught over their straight-as-an-arrow son. (Papa Lynde disgustedly tears up a report card of all “A”s, while Ms. Ghostley wails and keens as if she’s Juno Boyle.) Brooks seemingly never forgot producer Sillman (who makes a brief cameo in the opening scene). The perennially-overdrawn Sillman had all the luck, taste and integrity of — well, Max Bialystock. He also had an “elegant upper East Side townhouse” — mansion, actually, and steeply mortgaged -- on East 79th Street, now the domicile of New York’s reigning mayor. Non-mortgaged, I would expect.
While “New Faces” might not be to everybody’s taste, it is just about as close to an authentic early-fifties Broadway revue as you’re likely to see. There is ingenuity, charm and some winning songs; there is also plenty of cheesy dancing and cardboard scenery. But Graham, Ghostley, Kitt and — yes — Clary pull you through.
I don’t know how easy it is to find “Comedy Classics” (from Platinum Disc of La Crosse, Wisconsin), but “New Faces” alone makes it worth the search. The set also gives you Ben Hecht’s “Nothing Sacred,” one of Hollywood’s great screwball comedies, starring Fredric March as a Front Page-style reporter and Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg. These two films, plus fifteen more, for $9.99? Yes, only don’t expect much in the way of production values; the set comes without an index, so you’ve got to load the individual discs and call up the menus to locate “New Faces” on the fourth.
—Steven Suskin, author of the forthcoming “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.