Sunday, November 27, 2016

Movie Crazy

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Movie Crazy (Paramount, 1932) – Directors: Clyde Bruckman, Harold Lloyd (uncredited). Writers: Vincent Lawrence (s/p). Agnes Christine Johnson, John Gray, & Felix Adler (story). Ernie Bushmiller & Harold Lloyd (uncredited). Stars: Harold Lloyd, Constance Cummings, Kenneth Thomson, Louise Closser Hale, Spencer Charters, Robert McWade, Eddie Fetherston, Sydney Jarvis, Harold Goodwin, Mary Doran, DeWitt Jennings, Lucy Beaumont, & Arthur Housman. B&W, 80 minutes.

Once sound became firmly entrenched, critics and movie buffs alike wondered who of the top three silent comedians would successfully make the jump to the new medium. Charlie Chaplin waited until 1940 to accept the new reality. He knew his Little Tramp character was totally unsuited for sound, and the Tramp made his last appearance in the silent Modern Times (1936). Keaton knew he played much better without sound and many wondered if he could make the jump. As things turned out, he couldn’t. Saddled with bad scripts and a dominating partner in Jimmy Durante, Keaton quickly disappeared from the screen. Harold Lloyd was tabbed as the one who would make it successfully. The characters he played and his style of acting seemed flexible enough to slide over into the new world of sound pictures. 

His first venture into sound films, Welcome Danger (1929) was not an easy one. First made in the silent mode, it took a lot of work and money to convert it to sound. But Lloyd looked comfortable and the film did well at the box office. He followed it the next year with Feet First (1930), yet if anyone thought Lloyd would improve from his mistakes in Welcome Danger, they were sadly mistaken. It was obvious that he still played better in the silent world, where everything was much more fluid, than in the world of sound with its continual stops and starts.

Lloyd then took a two-year sabbatical before venturing forth with this, his third film. When we watch closely, we see he is still not comfortable with the new medium; he even considered the feasibility of releasing the film as a silent in Europe. Movie Crazy was a great improvement over his first two sound attempts and is seen by many of his fans and critics as possibly his best sound feature, but the film did not do well at the box office (perhaps because it was released during the nadir of the Depression) and many of its gags misfired or showed they were better suited to the world of silent features.

Harold Lloyd is Harold Hill, an amateur actor who is obsessed with the movies. He goes so far as to write letter to Planet Studios in Hollywood into which he’ll enclose a picture. While he’s away his father reads the latter and shakes his head. But on hearing Harold coming back, he puts everything back, but misplaces the photo Harold wants to send. Harold mistakenly sends a photo of someone else, quite good looking, with his letter. Studio executive J.L. O’Brien (Charters) sends him an invitation to come out for a screen test. Harold’s father, fearing the worst, offers to buy his son a round-trip ticket, but Harold will have none of that, telling his father that when he comes back he will do so in a Rolls Royce. 

As he detrains at Los Angeles’ Union Station, Harold finds himself watching the studio shooting a scene in progress. The director calls for extras and Harold is asked if he wants to be in a movie. Harold believes they want him for a leading role and proceeds to totally disrupt the proceedings, after which the director gives him the gate. But before Harold leaves, he falls in love with the leading lady, a “Spanish lady” being played by Mary Sears (Cummings). 

Later, Harold reports to O’Brien, who recognizes him as the person who disrupted his film. O’Brien thinks “Harold Hill” is the man in the photo sent to him, and doesn’t realize Harold is the real Hill. O’Brien screams to his staff to have Harold Hill tested and the staff complies. Harold fails miserably, and as he leaves the studio he’s caught in a rainstorm with Mary, who he does not know is the Spanish lady. After a series of mishaps helping her get into her car, she nicknames him “Trouble,” and by the time they reach her apartment she remarks that she’s pleased to meet a man who has not made a pass at her on their first meeting.

Harold runs into Mary later in costume as the Spanish lady. He still does not know that Mary and the Spanish lady are one and the same. After flirting with him as the Spanish lady, Mary coaxes Harold into giving her his fraternity pin. Later, in her own clothes, Mary accuses Harold of being a cad, but they make up and he promises to get the pin back. Harold brings out Mary’s maternal instincts and provides a nice buffer against the advances of her drunken leading man (Thomson).

Mary continues the facade until Harold kisses the Spanish lady. He tries to call on her, but she writes a note on the back of an invitation that she doesn’t want to see him again. Harold reads the wrong side of the card and is under the impression that Mary wants him to attend the party that night as her guest. Once at the party, Harold proceeds to turn everything upside down when he mistakenly dons a magician’s coat while in the washroom. Out on the dance floor, he ends up releasing, among other things, a litter of mice and a rabbit. When the magician finally discovers who has his coat, Harold is thrown out of the party. 

Later, Mary ends the charade by revealing to Harold on a movie set that she is indeed the Spanish lady. Vance, seeing Harold on the set, knocks him out into a basket. Waking up a few minutes later, Harold proceeds to fight for real with Vance while the set is being flooded for the film’s climax. Mr. Kitterman, the studio head, walks on the set to observe the goings-on and finding Harold locked up with Vance, thinks it’s all part of the script. He finds Harold unbelievably funny. Harold tries to tell him that it was for real, but Mary stops him in time to watch him sign a contract as Harold and Mary are reconciled.

The basic problem with Movie Crazy is that is comes off like a silent comedy to which a soundtrack is appended. Most of the gags remind one of Lloyd’s silent days and there’s very little word play, which is what most moviegoers have come to expect by now. For instance, the scene with Lloyd and the magician’s coat at the party goes on too long and seems calculated and mechanically contrived. The same with the fight scene in the boat. It just happens. There is no real build-up and it also goes on too long. 

Though the movie revolves around Lloyd and he dominates it, it is Constance Cummings who comes off best. She is quicker and more confident in her character than Lloyd is in his. In fact, it seems as if she has developed her character independently of his foibles. Her portrayal of the dual role of Mary Sears and the Spanish lady comes off brilliantly and would have worked a lot better if she was paired with Joe E. Brown or Bert Wheeler, someone more familiar with the world of sound than Lloyd, who strikes us throughout as distinctly uncomfortable in his new role.

Kenneth Thomson as Vance, the bad guy of the movie, performs his scenes well, but isn’t given enough time to expand his character and make us see just why he’s the villain of the piece. We would have liked to have seen more of Thomson, as well as Lucy Beaumont and DeWitt Jennings as Harold’s parents. This, again, is the influence of silent comedy, where the villain is simply introduced as such and goes from there. It’s the failure to properly integrate the physical comedy scenes into the body of the film as a whole that ultimately sinks it.

Given the box office returns, it would be another two years before Lloyd returned to the screen in 1934’s The Cat’s Paw, in which he finally begins to master the complexities of sound and turns out a genuinely funny movie. If I were to grade Movie Crazy I’d give it an “A” for effort, and be grateful that Lloyd and his crew had the good sense to cast Constance Cummings.

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