Harold Lloyd disc 2

The problem with the Harold Lloyd box is that it’s wildly unchronological so from the first disc to the second we jump a whole decade to a couple of Lloyd’s sound films…

The Cat’s-Paw: in which Lloyd plays Ezekiel Cobb, the son of a missionary in China, sent back to the US to find himself a wife, who unexpectedly becomes mayor of his old home town when inadvertently boosted into power by a gang of crooked politicians. The latter are posing on a reform platform which, unfortunately for them, Cobb takes seriously. I found an original 1934 review which amusingly notes this was one of only two films Lloyd had made with an actual script to that point; in this case the script came from a newspaper serial published the previous year. This is probably why Lloyd departs from his usual everyday go-getting young man screen persona for something rather more specific, this missionary’s son who’s never left his Chinese village for 20 years and so has been totally cut off from American culture… and it’s the way the film plays on the fish out of water coming off second best in the cultural clash that nearly sinks it early on; it’s a somewhat one-note and hard to warm to characterisation. It picks up some once Cobb becomes mayor, but for me it was never the laugh riot 1934 audiences seemed to have thought it was. And personally I thought the last act, where Cobb’s former masters turn on him and he turns on them by becoming a dictator for a day, was just kind of unsettling; only a year after Gabriel Over the White House acted as a serious argument for fascism in America, it’s a bit weird seeing Lloyd making a sort of comic argument for it… Obviously the film was an overt attempt by him to try something different, but I’m not sure it exactly worked.

The Milky Way: the latest film in the set (it doesn’t include his last two acting jobs, neither of which were made by his own company unlike these two), apparently it only survives because Lloyd retained his own print; Sam Goldwyn bought the remake rights a decade later and, with them, the negative and all known prints, which he promptly had destroyed. Which sounds ludicrous now, but MGM were trying it as late as 1959 with the Ramon Novarro Ben Hur so that it wouldn’t compete with the Heston one… Just as well Lloyd saved his print, cos it would’ve been a fair loss otherwise; apparently it was his best-reviewed sound film and it’s easy enough to see why, he seems to adapt quite well to the mid-30s screwball trend. But again I note it’s made from an existing text—a play in this case—and if I’m reading the production information on the film’s Wiki page right, the idea for making it didn’t even come from Lloyd, who wasn’t even Paramount’s first choice for the property… The character Lloyd plays—Burleigh Sullivan, a small town milkman who inadvertently triumphs over another crooked backer to become a champion boxer—is more like one of his usual characters than Ezekiel Cobb, but I suppose it does all kind of beg the question just how far is The Milky Way a “Harold Lloyd film”, as opposed to being a “Leo McCarey film”. It felt more like the latter than the former. Either way, though, it was a lot of fun despite Sam Goldwyn’s best efforts to prevent future generations from getting to enjoy it.

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