Watching Ted Wilde’s silent comedy Speedy is like reading a palimpsest coloured by layer upon layer of nostalgia. In the first instance, there is the veritable nostalgia of watching any and all silent cinema. Speedy is the standard-bearer for pre-talkies in the first wave of UK releases by the prestigious Criterion and proves a perfect example of an art form so beloved of cinephiles and oft overlooked by wider audiences. The ingenuity of visual storytelling is matched only by the marvel of fantastic physical comedy and hilarious unexpected consequences. This is only heightened by the timing of the film’s release.
Made in 1928, it came out a year after Al Jolson first spoke in The Jazz Singer, meaning that for audiences it was already a film harking back to cinema’s wordless past in terms of its own production. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that it marked the final silent appearance from one of the era’s titans Harold Lloyd. His following film, Welcome Danger, featured the tagline ‘For the First Time! Hear Harold Lloyd Talk’. These connotations were clearly not lost on the filmmakers, whose script both celebrated old-fashioned tradition and understood the need for modernisation and progress. The plot concerns the fate of the sole horse-car left in a New York City of steam engines and hustle and bustle.
That hustle and bustle is innate in the younger generation, embodied here by Lloyd’s typical ‘boy in glasses’ character Harold Swift, nicknamed ‘Speedy’. The nickname was actually the one given to Lloyd by his father and it suits him perfectly as a young man always flitting back and forth, trying to juggle his new job as a soda-jerk with keeping on top of the latest baseball score in Yankee Stadium. The structure of the film is reminiscent of Lloyd’s barnstorming rom-com Girl Shy in that the first half plays as a series or only tangentially connected scenes that offer insight into Speedy’s character, before the driving narrative takes over in time for a climactic drama. Speedy is in love with Jane Dillon (Ann Chritsy) and her grandfather, Pop (Bert Woodruff), is the owner of the horse-car. Railroad developers are trying to buy Pop’s track on the cheap in order to develop a citywide franchise and set to take desperate and nefarious measures to force him to sell.
Along with the bleary-eyed view of this outdated but loveable institution, Speedy’s quest to defend Pop’s livelihood also sees him co-opt the old-timers from the local community to literally take up arms against goons sent in to disrupt Pop’s service. The first half is fairly gentle and subtly ingenious including a thoroughly delightful trip to Coney Island in which Lloyd famously flips the bird without being caught by censors. Things begin to escalate during Speedy’s brief but raucous tenure as a taxi driver that involves all manner of vehicular mayhem and sees him give his hero, Babe Ruth, a lift to the game. It’s hugely entertaining, if not Lloyd at the peak of his powers; either way Speedy is a fitting tribute to an era.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson