100 Years of… Grandma’s Boy

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A prime slice of Harold Lloyd, Grandma’s Boy isn’t as famous as Safety Last! (the one where he dangles from a clock), but it is just as good as an example of his skills.

Like the other two members of the Big Three of silent funnymen, Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, often found himself tangling with men much manlier than himself. But whereas Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Stoneface had a steely puckishness and an aggressive intelligence, Lloyd’s “Glasses” character (as he called the guy in the specs) did not. He was generally speaking more the have-a-go Ordinary Joe. In Grandma’s Boy, “Glasses” is also a weakling and a coward, a Mummy’s Boy squared, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The film is important for helping to popularise the feature-length comedy. Chaplin’s last film as a hired hand, 1914’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, was the first, but comedy shorts had continued to reign supreme in the interim and longer comedies didn’t really take off until the 1920s, when The Kid (Chaplin), The Saphead (Keaton) and Grandma’s House broke through.

It’s ironic, then, that Grandma’s House started life as a short, about a cowardly and weak soldier (no prizes) and his adventures in the American Civil War. That short forms a central part of the film, where it becomes a reminiscence by the grandmother of Sonny (Lloyd) about the exploits of his grandfather and how a magical talisman gave Sonny’s ancestor the courage he naturally lacked. All this related to Sonny by his grandma because he’s been found wanting in all the manly departments. Not only has he failed to get the girl (Mildred Davis, who later became Lloyd’s wife), but he’s been bullied (thrown down a well!) by his rival in love (Charles Stevenson) and has also balked at evicting a violent hobo (Dick Sutherland) from grandma’s garden.

Mildred Davis and Harold Lloyd
But will he get the girl?

As feature-length films go, it’s short at just one hour long, but there are a number of elements you still see in Hollywood comedies today, like the montage backstory opening sequence following Sonny (wearing glasses even as a toddler) trying and failing to exhibit any of the right stuff growing up. There’s a forerunner of the ironic/comic voiceover (intertitle cards, in fact, but these do jokes!). Plus the sort of sight gags you might associate later on with Adam Sandler, hapless, hopeless Sonny getting his finger stuck in a knick knack he’s nervously playing with while attempting to court His Girl (as Davis is billed). Or the sequence when His Girl’s kittens becoming overly interested in Sonny’s shoes, on account of grandma (a spry 77-year-old Anna Townsend, who also turned up in Safety Last!) having accidentally polished them with goose grease. Simpler times.

(Slight digression but Sandler’s comedy The Waterboy got sued by Harold Lloyd’s grand-daughter, who reckoned it was too close to Lloyd’s 1925 hit The Freshman. She lost the case, but someone else clearly saw the Sandler/Lloyd read-across.)

Lloyd is not as inventive as Chaplin or Keaton, but he does have a few things they don’t have – he’s less “back of the room” in his performing style, and he’s more emotionally nuanced. His eternal-optimist persona and regular-guy clothes (he’s a dapper 1920s fellow) also set him apart.

Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd didn’t generally speaking write or direct his own films, though he did, crucially, own the company that made them and was much more actively involved in the creative side of things than the credits suggest. He also knew how to surround himself with good people. A case in point is his cinematographer here, Walter Lundin, who isn’t much of a name when it comes to the greats of the craft but gives Grandma’s Boy a picturesque look here and there that was uncommon at the time. In most films of this era, just getting something in the can was the main concern.

Is Grandma’s Boy still funny? It has its inspired moments and Lloyd’s athleticism is something to watch, even though pratfalls are used a bit too often and there is even the odd instance of a joke that’s used once and then used again not long afterwards. Something neither Chaplin nor Keaton would ever have done.

Enjoyable certainly, admirable definitely… but laugh-out-loud funny? Not as such.

Grandma’s Boy (as part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection) – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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