Chinatown After Dark: Exploring Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger by matthew c. hoffman

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“It was easier to sit down and talk, and to make up verbal quips, to get dialogue, instead of visual action and ocular business, gags, as we used to call them. The spoken word seemed to be much simpler to get their laughs from, and much cheaper. They could make a picture for much less, because visual comedy is expensive. It takes timing. It takes spacing. It takes rehearsal to bring it off correctly. And, as time went on, comedians seemed to lose the art, or the knack you might call it, of doing pantomime. It just became a different school of thought.” ~ Harold Lloyd, 1959

Last Wednesday, April 20th, TCM honored Harold Lloyd’s 118th birthday by playing some of his films. Fortunately, one of them was the rarely-seen Welcome Danger (1929), a film not available on dvd in the United States. It may never be released in this country as there is a dwindling demand for these films. I had never seen it before, but now that I have, I can tell you it’s one of the strangest Harold Lloyd films. You would never think that a movie depicting a charming idyll of Harold mooning over a girl (with a cow-phobia) in the film’s prologue would eventually lead to a climax with Harold locked in a room and about to be beaten and whipped by a hulking black henchman (played by Blue Washington). Storywise, the film is insane (in a good way), but it’s of special interest to historians for what is beyond the plot points. Welcome Danger reveals the process of bridging the gap between silence and sound.

For those who know nothing of its creation, Welcome Danger was the film Harold made immediately after his great success, Speedy (1928). It was completed as a silent film. However, one evening before the film’s release (it was in its final editing stage), Harold was walking down a street in Los Angeles when he passed the Million Dollar Theatre and stopped to take note of an interesting phenomenon. He heard the audience inside responding enthusiastically to what was being aurally projected back at them. He went in and saw that audiences were laughing at the most mundane sounds being heard in the short subject that was playing– bacon sizzling, that sort of thing. It was at this moment that Harold had a creative epiphany about what the value of sound effects could mean; he decided to release Welcome Danger as his first sound film. With his own finances, he rebooted and retooled it by shooting  new scenes with sound (with Clyde Bruckman directing) and then redubbing the completed portions (which had been earlier shot by Mal St. Clair). These sections of the film are partially out of sync.

Harold plays a rather preoccupied botanist named Harold Bledsoe who is on his way by train to San Francisco.  After being stranded while picking flower specimens from a tree, he comes upon Billie Lee (Barbara Kent) and her little brother on the road. She is having car trouble and is in the process of making repairs– or attempting to anyway– when Harold shows up in need of a ride. In her cap and overalls, she passes herself off as a man– there’s a reason she pursues this masquerade, but let’s not get too involved with this summary.

Welcome Danger would probably lay an egg with modern audiences who crave sensory overkill, but at least it has the lovely Barbara Kent in it! (A replacement for Mary McAllister, who was the original lead in the silent version, Kent would go on to co-star with Harold in his next film, Feet First.)

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Other writers have commented on how unlikeable Harold is at the start of this film because of his (mis)treatment of  “Billie.”  Harold was certainly a better comic than this,  so it is disconcerting to see him play a jerk. It’s hard to imagine audiences laughing at these verbal put-downs, but maybe they weren’t meant to. This was Harold’s way of establishing his character’s flaws early. But the problem is that there is a total disconnect between him and us. Unlike his silent films, we are no longer seeing ourselves in him– at least for the early part of the movie. The only thing that can be said in defense of this abusive introduction is that Harold doesn’t realize Billie is a she. (But you wouldn’t talk to anyone the way he talks to her.) One passing shot of her mischievous smile tells us she is playing along with it. She even instigated his animosity by insulting the girl in the picture with whom he is so infatuated. (The girl in the cherished photo is in fact Billie.)

Their relationship is very sweet. Slow-moving perhaps, but still moving with its rural background. Kent’s character is one of those uncomplicated movie heroines  who can love a man unconditionally, running after his departing train as though she were a loyal puppy. You know she will say yes… if he can just get the question out. We like Barbara Kent in this movie, but we don’t understand why she likes Harold as much as she does. We miss the carefully-structured romances of Jobyna Ralston in films like The Kid Brother.

In San Francisco we discover that the police department has been stymied by the nefarious “Dragon,”  a villain of the underworld who has a stranglehold on Chinatown. Harold’s father had been the police chief there  years ago, so the current brain trust has the bright idea that perhaps Harold is a chip off his dad’s block; his services are recruited after a good first impression. Since Harold didn’t seem to notice Billie’s obvious femininity earlier in the film, we wonder what kind of sharp detective he’d make. In addition, Harold had never heard of the science of fingerprinting. He makes up for it by obsessively fingerprinting all the cops in the station.

Quite by accident, Harold discovers the opium trade when a plant pot he had absconded with breaks. Finding a carton of dope inside, the Chinese doctor, who had been attending to Billie’s brother (and who also is an enemy of The Dragon), goes off to see what he can find out. He vanishes, but Harold goes in search of him. Harold’s sidekick is Clancy, the wide-eyed, slow-talking traffic cop (played by the wonderful Noah Young) who had earlier been run over by Harold and Billie. (The two men had been paired together earlier in1921’s A Sailor-Made Man in which they had rescued Mildred Davis from the Maharajah.)

There’s a wonderfully atmospheric sequence in a labyrinth involving wall panels and secret passageways. The two find themselves running from dozens of Chinese. It’s not the most subtle brand of humor with most of the action involving characters getting hit over the head with boards. And there’s the candle-on-a-moving-turtle gag. (It never fails!) It might be tedious to some, but I liked this sequence. The music and lighting add to the “haunted house”-type thrills. Listen carefully and you’ll recognize the Alfred Hitchcock theme, “Funeral March of a Marionette,” in the score. The incidental music was arranged by C. Bakaleinikoff.

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Harold incorporates a funny gag here where his match goes out and the screen goes totally black: the joke being that now we have sound but no picture. However, Harold milks this device a little too much with the match continuously going out.

Had the film ended after this first brawl, it would’ve been a huge disappointment. But true to form, Harold extends the action for a topper– and another confrontation with The Dragon.

Back at the station, the police have turned on Harold. He is only a laughingstock. They don’t believe anything he has to say. The scene recalls a moment in The Freshman in which Harold realizes he is the joke of the campus. And like that earlier film, Harold must now prove himself worthy…

The original silent version that was first previewed no doubt would’ve been a better film because it would’ve moved faster without the awkward dialogue to root characters in place. Welcome Danger is by no means a bad film. Harold never made a bad movie. It’s actually technically superior to many early talkies. (The notable exceptions at the time were films like Applause and The Love Parade.) It’s just not as funny as Movie Crazy (his best talkie), or as interesting as The Cat’s Paw, which also used the Chinatown theme. Welcome Danger has its pluses including a great cast of supporting actors.

Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton plays Thorne, an outraged civic leader who is really The Dragon. (It’s never a mystery, folks. Early in the film it’s revealed to us.) Edgar Kennedy, the master of the slow burn, plays the desk sergeant (his character did not appear in the silent version), and the aforementioned Noah Young provides the comic relief in support of our main comic.

The real problem with Welcome Danger is that it is a stylistic mess– neither silent nor a true sound picture. It’s a hybrid, a crossover, a bridge between two worlds of comedy. And the reality of the sound world detracts from the comedy. It’s funnier seeing Harold riding an out-of-control cow backwards in silence than it is hearing him yell for help on it. It’s funnier seeing guys get conked over the head in silent films than hearing the harsh violence of the actual sound effect. The magic silence was its own world, and it did not always translate into the reality of the talking motion picture.

The film is clearly interested in sound, and in fact opens with a train roaring towards the camera. Had audiences seen this image 30 years earlier they would’ve jumped out of their seats for fear the train would run them over. Such was the impact of moving pictures. But now in 1929, it was the sound of the image that made audiences startled. For the first time, they could hear the whistle of the train and all the ordinary sounds of the real world. The opening scene with Harold in the train car is a catalog of aural effects, and each interaction with a passenger presents us with the sounds of everyday life, such as a baby crying. Audiences were curious to finally hear these familiar sounds. Curiosity is what made Welcome Danger his most commercially successful film.

There are even a couple inter-titles that recall the silent film technique. “And so, chop suey to the left of him– laundries to the right of him– into the midst of Chinatown strode Harold Bledsoe.”

The first cut that Harold initially previewed was almost 3 hours. The response was enthusiastic, but then the more times he cut it down the worse it got. He finally got it down to just under two hours– still too long by comedy standards– before converting it into the film we know today. Nevertheless, the foreign market– as well as American theatres not yet equiped for sound– did get the silent version of the film.

In Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses, author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd writes, “Mind you, the original, complete silent version is not known to survive to this day, but fragments do– the original picture negative was missing the first reel, but the dupe picture negative was used to fill in that missing reel and other segments. These fragments comprise a mock ‘restored silent version’ that has screened in some archive theatres. Actually, on August 13, 2008, UCLA’s film archive screened both versions of Welcome Danger– the silent and the sound– on the same evening. The response to the ‘new’ silent has been overwhelming– mirroring the curiosity and enthusiasm of 1929 audiences. According to UCLA film archive preservationist Jere Guldin, ‘After we screened it, I believe it played for five days at the Film Forum [in New York]. They sold out the shows every day.'”

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This UCLA version quoted above was mostly a mute print of the talking Welcome Danger with intertitles. There are some key differences between them. However, it is important to stress that the St. Clair version does not exist.

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For more rare images, including stills from the deleted scenes of the silent version, please visit our photo gallery in the Legends of Laughter movie group on Facebook.

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One Response to “Chinatown After Dark: Exploring Harold Lloyd’s Welcome Danger by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Rick Levinson Says:

    Great piece, Matthew. Lloyd more than any other silent comedian worked hard to get his audience onside, to make them understand and like his character. So it’s disturbing to see him berating the Girl (and everybody else) during the run of the film. Yes, the joke is that he is to get his comeuppance when he finally realizes the girl he’s mooning over in the photo is “Billy”. But the comeuppance – his realizing what a jerk he’s been – does not negate the rudeness. Actually, the comeuppance hardly even happens: they fall in love almost immediately after the mistaken identity is revealed. Why would the Girl fall in love with him after he was abusive to her? After the carefully built-up romances in KID BROTHER, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE and GIRL SHY, it’s hard to understand the logic of the love match in WELCOME DANGER. But of course all of WD is a mess stylistically. The pacing is off, the Lloyd character is nasty and obnoxious, the sound effects make the head-cracking brutal and unfunny, the diallogue is witless.

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