Into The Gag Room by matthew c. hoffman

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“These men, I would sometimes work with them en masse, with the whole group of them and I would sit with them and they would begin to throw ideas at me. And I’d begin to pick and choose ideas that I liked here and there. I would take an idea, here, and I’d say, this is good, it needs developing, it needs to fit this situation. So maybe I’d split them up into pairs, or threes, or maybe singly, and they’d go on their own and work on it. And then they’d throw them at me again and I would pick out the wheat out of all the chaff, and put it together, and do the assembling– that I always did myself– I knew what I really needed for my character; I knew my character and I knew what my character would be able to use best.” — Harold Lloyd

Behind many a great comic you will find the “gag men” who helped make them great. Harold Lloyd was fortunate enough to have a team of some of the best and most gifted writers with him throughout most of his career. Sometimes he would recruit up to six of these writers for one film. They were the men behind some of the great sequences of visual action and physical comedy. The “gags” were the bits of comedic buisness designed for the story. There was never a dominating creative force behind them– Lloyd most likely would not have felt comfortable with such a personality– but as a group, the gag men devised ingenius moments of laughter. They would sit around a table and basically try to top one another with ideas. Their greatest contributions to the screen comedy legacy came in the company of Harold Lloyd.  As a result of their collective contributions, Lloyd’s movies became some of the funniest and best crafted of all the silent clowns.

Harold Lloyd began his career as a comic actor with Hal Roach. Unlike Mack Sennett, the other great comedy pioneer, Roach’s films put a greater emphasis on story and character. Lloyd’s success depended on the quality and the intricacy of the gag structure in these stories. Lloyd spoke of this fascinating process with historian Kevin Brownlow,

“When Hal and I started, we had to think up our own gags. When Hal went off (to direct another picture)… and I started my first picture with glasses, I had to think up all the gags myself. As the pictures began to make money, I hired as many idea men as I could get that I thought were good… We had no script, but we made minute notes of the particular sequence that we were going to shoot… We built as we went along, like building a house. Building was of great importance. We’d have a certain number of pieces of business, gags, that we knew we were going to do. They were called ‘islands.’ We knew we had to go there. But whatever we did between those was up to us. We would ad lib, make it up as we went along.”

Some of the major contributors included Sam Taylor, Fred Newmeyer and Ted Wilde. These men also assisted Lloyd behind the camera as directors. (Though Lloyd was the force behind his own films, he never took onscreen credit as director.)

Sam Taylor (1895-1958), who wore horn-rimmed glasses like Lloyd’s Glass Character, was a college grad and a vet of the First World War. He joined Hal Roach in 1921 and the first Lloyd film he worked on was Now or Never. He co-directed Safety Last!, Why Worry?, Girl Shy, Hot Water, The Freshman, and For Heaven’s Sake. After a foray into other genres, Taylor returned to direct Lloyd’s The Cat’s-Paw in 1934. “The Lloyd comedies have gags, of course,” Taylor said back in 1925. “but always the gag furthers the story… First we ‘gag up’ the initial faction and then while I am directing Harold in this sequence, the gag men in the office are preparing the incidents and treatment for the second faction. Always, of course, under Lloyd’s guidance and my own supervision– and so on, until we have shot the several factions which compose the story.”

Fred Newmeyer (1888-1967) was a former major league baseball player who turned to the movies after an injury shortened his pitching career. He had been an old schoolmate of Harold’s in Colorado many years before. Lloyd offered Newmeyer a job at Hal Roach’s Rolin studio in the capacity of actor. Despite Hal Roach’s criticism that Newmeyer was the worst actor on the lot, the producer/director gave him a chance to direct. And it would be as a director where his talents came through– first in Lloyd’s shorter films and then in his feature films. With Sam Taylor (the superior talent), Newmeyer co-directed Safety Last!, Why Worry?, Girl Shy, Hot Water, and The Freshman.

Ted Wilde (1890-1929) was a Columbia University graduate with a love of the stage. Like Sam Taylor, he was a World War I veteran. After the war, he spent time in New York before traveling to the West Coast where, in 1922, he began his training under Harold Lloyd. He was a contributor to Lloyd’s films from 1924-1926. Wilde co-wrote The Kid Brother which he also directed (when Lewis Milestone bowed out).  He was later nominated for (the short-lived category) Best Comedy Direction for his work on Lloyd’s last silent film, Speedy (1928). After a debilitating stroke, Wilde died in 1929. He was only 39 years old.

Some of the other significant gag men in Harold’s credits include Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Lex Neal. There was also Thomas J. Crizer (1888-1963), John Grey (1873-1933), J. A. Howe (1889-1963), Howard Emmett Rogers (1890-1971), and Tim Whelan (1893–1957). Though they are just names– footnotes to a film historian– their mostly uncredited contributions can’t be overlooked.

Clyde Bruckman (1894-1955) had worked with many of the great comedians of his day including W.C. Fields, Harry Langdon, and Laurel & Hardy. He was a frequent collaborator with Buster Keaton, co-directing Buster’s masterpiece, The General. Bruckman (pronounced BROOK-man) worked on  Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake, which he co-wrote, as well as Lloyd’s Welcome Danger, which he directed. He also helmed Feet First and Movie Crazy and worked as a writer on The Cat’s-Paw and Professor Beware. Sadly, Bruckman suffered from alcoholism and, in his later years, blatantly recycled Lloyd material for The Three Stooges at Columbia. In The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia (2004), author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd writes that during the making of Movie Crazy, “Bruckman was so far gone that Lloyd had to take over the direction entirely– yet, Harold gave Clyde complete on-screen credit for direction.” Bruckman’s drinking ultimately led to his suicide in the mid-1950s.

Pictured: Clyde Bruckman (second from left) with Hugh Fay, Hunt Stromberg, and David Kirkland.

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Jean Havez (1873-1925), a gifted songwriter, was equally adept with writing Hollywood scenarios. He worked on the stories A Sailor-Made Man and Grandma’s Boy. Havez wrote several Buster Keaton’s stories such as Our HospitalitySherlock, Jr., and The Navigator before returning to Lloyd’s company in 1925. His last (uncredited) contribution was on Lloyd’s The Freshman screenplay. Havez was only 52 when he died.

Pictured: Buster Keaton with his team of writers: (from left to right)  Joe Mitchell, Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Eddie Cline.

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Lex Neal (1894-1940) was even younger than Havez when he died at the age of 46. Neal had been a vaudeville dancer prior to his entrance into the movies. He was also a childhood friend of Buster Keaton’s at the Actor’s Colony in Muskegon, Michigan, (known as Bluffton). Keaton would later hire Neal as a screenwriter for films like Go West and Battling Butler. An August 1926 press release reported that Neal had joined Harold Lloyd. Neal was recognized at the time as being one of the foremost gag men in the motion picture industry. He would work on Lloyd’s The Freshman and Speedy before moving on to Paramount. 

Another character of significance is Frank Terry (1870-1948), a gag man with a rather colorful past. Annette D’Agostino Lloyd writes, “At one point, he was smuggled by friends out of Australia; headed east, he engaged in various gambling-related exploits, before crossing a real-life Rajah, eventually being banished to a prison island. Ever resourceful, he escaped and, in the care of an English prostitute, made his way to America, where he first entered Vaudeville, and then film.” 

In his autobiography, An American Comedy, Harold writes of him, “He had been one of England’s greatest pantomimists and variety comedians, and filed away in his head was every bit of comedy business ever seen in the English music halls, on which he drew endlessly and to our great profit.”

It was Terry who had been with Lloyd during the infamous 1919 bomb accident at a photographer’s studio. It was here that a real explosive (mistaken for a prop bomb) maimed Lloyd’s right hand. As a gag contributor, Terry reportedly balanced “kernels of something excellent” with the “the most horrible ideas.”  Besides his work as a writer, Terry had served in an earlier capacity as assistant director on several Lloyd short films, such as the Chaplinesque From Hand to Mouth. Terry worked on the stories An Eastern Westerner as well as High and Dizzy. He would go on to write several stories for Laurel & Hardy (as well as appear in some of their two-reelers). He left film in 1935 to become a missionary chaplain in Hawaii.

From these writers, Harold Lloyd assembled a story rich in gags. The genesis of which was always born from the minds of many. In the days before “talkies,” there was never a script for these stories. However, the ideas they came up with would be planned out in advance– the details of which to be worked out on film with room for improvisation.  The gags– Harold’s “islands”– determined the direction of the story. (Safety Last! was a unique example of a movie worked out in reverse with the gag-heavy climb up the building created first. Such was Lloyd’s method of filmmaking.) But the best gags were always those which not only stood by themselves but pushed the story forward. Lloyd’s The Freshman is an example of this. Compare his use of gags in this film with Keaton’s in College. Though Keaton’s take on the 1920s college craze was hilarious, the film itself was more a series of individual gag sequences. The Freshman is the superior film because Lloyd’s gags strengthen, to a greater degree, the overall story and its theme as well as his own character’s development within it.

It always took a special temperament to succeed in Harold’s gag room. Broadway playwright Frank Craven– who would go on to do the screenplay for Laurel & Hardy’s Sons of the Desert— once offered his services to Lloyd, thinking one central writer was better than a barrel of them. Craven didn’t last long. In the frenzied environment of the gag room, Craven drew a blank and emerged somewhat dazed by the experience. He admitted to Lloyd afterward, “Harold, it’s your medium.”

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