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June 29, 2005

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!

If you've ever heard of Harold Lloyd, you probably think of him as the guy hanging from the clock. But chances are you don't know anything else about him. You don't know how he got stuck on that clock, or if he ever got off. Maybe the clock was his natural habitat, and he lived a happy and peaceful fourscore and seven dangling from its hands. How can we ever really know?

Partly, this is Lloyd's own fault. As a comedian he took a long time to hit his stride. Early in his career, he is reported to have asked Hal Roach: "What do I do to be funny?" However, by the time he went independent, he'd figured that one out better than any mortal man should be permitted.

Unfortunately, his best stuff is not on video. After the coming of sound film and until his death, Lloyd kept these movies in a vault in his home at Greenacres, impeccably preserved but almost never seen. The wonderful Grandma's Boy is out on DVD, and Safety Last (the one with the clock) can occasionally be found on VHS. But after that, nothing. No Girl Shy, no The Kid Brother, no Speedy.

At least, not until this year. Thirty-four years after Lloyd's death, his granddaughter and tireless champion Suzanne Lloyd has contracted to have all of Lloyd's silent, independent features released on DVD. And, unbelievably, all of them will have limited theatrical release.

Next week.

I can barely articulate how miraculous this is. I can only say -- if you're in the vicinity of Chicago's Music Box Theatre between July 1st and 7th -- go. Don't hesitate, don't question. Just go. I will envy you.

Okay, you're owed perhaps a little bit of an explanation. Just enough so you have something to tell your friends when they ask why you're making a special trip to see a bunch of eighty-year-old silent movies about a guy in a straw boater and glasses. The answer is -- because that's the way they need to be seen.

Harold Lloyd knew how to work a crowd. A crowd isn't an essential ingredient for his movies: they come across on the small screen. Even when that screen's one or two viewers have popcorn crumbs all over their Hello Kitty micro-tees. But, aside from hygeine, those one or two viewers will be missing something special.

I've had the privilege of seeing Speedy -- Lloyd's last silent feature -- more than once in a theater with a good-sized crowd. By the end, all of us knew, without doubt, that we had been in the hands of a professional.

Once Harold has you in your seat, he strikes. First, he makes you care about the people onscreen and what happens to them. Then he takes you for the ride of your life.

Here is all I can tell you about Speedy. After many incidents that it's better to let you discover on your own, the second act of Speedy climaxes with a brawl. But not just any brawl. No cardboard chairs or bottles breaking over anybody's head. No, this is a teeth-pulling free-for-all. It's hired thugs versus octegenarian Civil War veterans in a take-no-prisoners fight over New York City's last horse-drawn streetcar. Dogs, sporting equipment, and laundry all join the battle, and offer no mercy. This is an onslaught the audience is powerless to resist.

After long minutes, when the fight fades out and the music quiets, people in the audience are actually exhausted and near tears with laughter. The screen remains black for a few moments. Then the third act kicks off with the perfect title. The audience, which has laughed until it couldn't laugh any more, breaks out in a fresh wave. It's a beautiful thing to witness.

And Speedy isn't even considered Harold's best film.

So go. Don't just watch Harold hang from the clock. Be the clock, and let Harold hang from you. You will be so happy you did.

June 18, 2005

Will Gnaw Brains For Food

Zombie movies are the new hip thing. Filmmakers from every vault have rushed to join the feeding frenzy. Even the original brain-eater, George Romero, has risen once again.

If you're a burgeoning auteur looking to steal some scraps from this particular meat wagon, but you're stuck for something to distinguish your own cinematic cadaver from the rest of the undead herd, here's an idea. The legend of John Henry makes an excellent beginning for a zombie flick.

Our story opens on John Henry, who has just worked himself to death digging a tunnel faster than a steam shovel. Now he is laid to rest in the tunnel he dug with his own hands.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the Venus orbiter Steam Shovel V returns to Earth. It crashes, blanketing the atmosphere with strange rays. Soon, John Henry rises from the dead and digs himself out of his tunnel. And this time, no mechanical device can stop him.

Shambling across the countryside, John Henry catches and devours unwitting steam engines. One group of panicked locomotives barricade themselves inside a roundhouse, hoping to wait out the chaos. But they must blow their whistles, which soon attracts more trouble than they can handle.

Alternately, if you're a filmmaker of conscience and want the story to play out against a backdrop of evil corporatism: John Henry could return from the dead as an unstoppable strip miner. Risen from the grave with the strength of ten cadavers, he shears off entire West Virginia mountaintops to get at the ore beneath.

In response, mining firms sue for lost projected revenue, seeking damages equivalent to the profit they would have made if each lost mountaintop had been made of platinum. John Henry makes an abortive attempt to tunnel into the CEOs' skulls, in search for any nuggets of value. But he is caught, tried, and sentenced to dig ore for the CEOs' golden parachutes.

This is cinematic gold, people, strip-mined straight from my brain. Wouldn't you like to own the mineral rights? At the very least, the fact that I came up with it proves that I do have lots and lots of brains. Any takers?