Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
The United States of America
He was so afraid of girls that he made a secret study of them, and the more he studied them the more he feared them.
Of all the great silent comics, there was never a man quite like Harold Lloyd. He was not a rascally little troublemaker like Charlie Chaplin or the perfect stone-faced gagster like Buster Keaton. Instead, his characters were usually unassuming, white-bread men. Walter Kerr, author of the 1975 book The Silent Clowns probably best summed it up by saying, “He had to think it all out. Lloyd was an ordinary man, like the rest of us: ungrotesque, uninspired. If he wanted to be a successful film comedian, he would have to learn how to be one, and learn the hard way.” And learn the hard way Lloyd did. Of the three great silent comedians (himself, Chaplin, and Keaton), Lloyd was the most prolific. By the mid-20s he had already starred in over 100 films. As the highest paid performer of the 1920s, he became famous for two onscreen personas: Lonesome Luke and his most famous character known simply as “The Boy.” “The Boy’s” toothy smile, stylish hat, and trademark glasses made him instantly recognizable. The famous scene from Safety Last! (1923) where he dangled from a clock on the side of a skyscraper could very well be the most iconic image of the silent film era.
But at their core, Lloyd’s characters were modest, inconspicuous fellows just trying to make their way in the world. Of course, there was usually a girl involved for whom Lloyd would jump through hoops to impress or woo. But then again, that was usually the basic formula for silent comedies back then. Women were prizes for which the protagonist had to endure severe dangers or complications in order to win.
But in 1924 Lloyd released magnificent film that broke away from that formula and in the process inadvertently helped create an entirely new genre of film: the romantic comedy. The film in question was entitled Girl Shy. While it may usually be overshadowed by Lloyd’s other great films like Safety Last! And The Kid Brother (1927), it is nevertheless one of the genius’ greatest films.
We find Lloyd as his “The Boy” character working as a tailor’s assistant for his uncle in the small nowhere town of Little Bend, California. As the title suggests, Lloyd is unusually frightened by women. When confronted by a member of the fairer sex, he is seized by uncontrollable stuttering that can only be broken by the sound of a whistle. His condition makes him somewhat of a celebrity as girls come in to deliberately tease and intimidate him. In one cruel scene, one girl forces him to sew up a hole in her stocking while she wears it.
But despite his fears, Lloyd desperately craves affection. In an early heartbreaking scene, he stands outside of a dance hall and begins to meekly dance with a store’s support column. His undiluted eagerness and bittersweet innocence recall Chaplin dancing with his dinner roles in The Gold Rush (1924). Who cannot identify with such a poignant and familiar scene?
But Lloyd has big plans. He has no intention of staying a tailor’s apprentice for his entire life. He writes a book in the hopes of getting published and becoming a successful writer. His book is entitled The Secret of Making Love by Harold Meadows. Obviously, the title had much more innocent connotations in 1924. Indeed, the book is a compilation of his fantasies of being a successful playboy and ladies’ man. Many of the film’s earliest gags come from reenactments of these fantasies. He first writes his “experience” with “The Vampire,” a seductive brunette trapped within a tightly-fitting dress. After watching the scene, one wonders if Lloyd was a fan of the exploits of Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires. We then watch his exploits with “The Flapper” who he callously mistreats until she begs for his affections.
After the book is completed, he hops on a train to Los Angeles where he meets a young sociality named Mary Buckingham. She first meets Lloyd when, in one of the film’s most iconic scenes, he sneaks her Pekinese dog onto the train after it is denied entry. Forced to sit next to her in the only empty seat, he finds that he can actually interact with her without breaking down. This is in part to the fact that the train whistle periodically breaks his stutter and to Mary’s eagerness to talk to him. Played by Jobyna Ralston, a regular in many of Lloyd’s films, she channels some of the original innocence and demur beauty of no less than Lillian Gish. But her character in this film is no stock beauty. Unlike the women in Buster Keaton’s work, Mary is not rude, mean, or demanding. Unlike Chaplin’s belles, they were not helpless but well-meaning airheads. She is a funny, kind, and surprisingly experienced character. By that I mean that she is no ingénue. Notice the coy and slightly mischievous smile she gives Lloyd when she learns the name and topic of his book.
When the train reaches its destination, there is a sweet scene where Lloyd and Mary find that they are the sole passengers left after everyone else had departed. Startled t, they hurry off the train towards their different destinations. It is at this time that the audience realizes that this isn’t like the other silent comedic romances that they were accustomed to. The film takes time to develop each character as separate individuals. We watch as Mary rejects suitors and Lloyd’s book gets rejected. When they meet again, Lloyd purposefully blows her off because he was too embarrassed to tell her the truth. It is this conflict that establishes Girl Shy as one of the first genuine romantic comedies. In a romantic comedy, two characters fall in love, for whatever reason they separate, realize that they truly love each other, and get back together. Romantic comedies require there to be a problem or a roadblock in the relationship that each character must overcome. In other silent films of the era, once the protagonist wins the heart of their loved ones, the film usually ends. For them, the comedy was more important than the romance. In Girl Shy, one could make an argument that it is actually a love story with jokes.
Of course, through a series of rather silly events, the publishing company decides to publish Lloyd’s book, Mary decides to marry another suitor, and Lloyd decides that he needs to confess to Mary before she gets married. This is all a set-up to the film’s greatest sequence: the chase to the chapel. If this isn’t one of the greatest silent comedic sequences ever filmed, it is at least one of the best of Lloyd’s career. We watch as he seizes vehicle after vehicle in an attempt to get to the chapel. During the chase, he finds himself on horseback, in a shootout with criminals, and on top of a run-away trolley. The camera intersperses medium and long shots of him almost as if it is desperate to prove that it is indeed Lloyd on top of real runaway vehicles. The audience never doubts it for a second. Several of the stunts could have easily killed him, especially one near impossible shot where he hangs from a pole off the top of a trolley and falls into the passenger seat of a nearby car. Even if it wasn’t Lloyd, we know for a fact that somebody was risking their life doing that stunt.
Of course, Lloyd makes it to the wedding just in time and whisks Mary away. He begs for Mary to marry him, and of course she says yes. Would we want it any other way? After all, we are emotionally invested in both of the principle characters. It makes sense considering that Lloyd described the film as a “character story” instead of a “gag film” that was played solely for laughs. As a result, there were fewer gags and more of a focus on the characters and their relationships. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny. It’s quite the contrary, actually. Girl Shy is one of Lloyd’s funniest films. And we are lucky that he managed to be so funny. By creating that perfect balance between character development and pure humor, Lloyd helped rewrite the way that romantic films would be made for the rest of history. Pretty good for a modest country boy, huh?
The entire film is available on youtube at the following link: