Nothing But Trouble: Movie Crazy (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

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NOTE: The Park Ridge Public Library had the largest turnout of the LOL series tonight (5/26/11) with Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy. Eighty-six people showed their support, and the reaction was phenomenal. This is further proof that comedies need a group setting in order to be fully appreciated. Moments that might come across as flat with a few jaded viewers come alive with a room full of people who appreciate classic comedy. (The audience’s overwhelming response to the film, in fact, answers the one question I posed to them before the show.) The following is the complete transcript of my talk…

“How long I continue to make pictures will depend on how long I hold my popularity and avoid monotony in my stories. One, even two pictures, are no criterion, but if ever three fail consecutively the handwriting on the wall will need no translating. I can only hope that when the time comes I shall not try to fool either the public or myself, but will bow my way out as gracefully as I can manage and turn to directing, producing or developing a younger actor. I will not have the excuse others have had, if I do not. There are men and women in Hollywood who were so overwhelmed with sudden riches that they spent as they made. When their popularity waned they had no choice but to go on, good or bad.”

Harold Lloyd wrote those words in 1928 in his rather premature autobiography, An American Comedy. Ten years later he would retire as an actor, only to make an ill-fated comeback in 1947 with the Preston Sturges film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Though 1932’s Movie Crazy was a critical success and made a profit, box office returns were diminishing. His next three films, The Cat’s Paw, The Milky Way (directed by Leo McCarey), and Professor Beware were all commercially disappointing. The writing was indeed on the wall. Harold’s go-getting Glass Character had fallen out of fashion during the Depression. To his credit, though, he recognized this and, as he had predicted a decade before, bowed out.

This is one of the many things I admire about Harold Lloyd. He left the stage with a quiet dignity. How many actors today keep on going as though their lives depend on the paycheck? Does the world really need another Robin Williams or Jim Carey or Vince Vaughn movie? But it’s an industry now where even the least talented of the modern, stand-up comics seem to thrive and crank out films like sausages. We wish they would just go away.

Harold getting an autograph from actor “Will U. Scram.”

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It’s a shame the box office receipts forced Harold to retire because except for Professor Beware in 1938, his sound films were actually quite good. A case in point is The Cat’s Paw, which I highly recommend. Since we had a mayoral race in Chicago I wanted to show The Cat’s Paw— an offbeat, rarely seen film in which Harold runs for mayor in a corrupt city and applies his Eastern philosophy to politics and gangsterism. Tonight’s film, though, is the one most Lloyd enthusiasts consider his best film of the 1930s.

My friends who run the Northwest Chicago Film Society at the Portage Theatre on Wednesday nights were kind enough to ask me to write the mini-review of Movie Crazy for their schedule when they showed it a couple months ago. I was fortunate to see a 35mm print of it projected there, and trust me, there is no comparison between seeing something on film and seeing one that is digitally projected, which always looks flat and lifeless. Movie Crazy really did come alive on the screen in a way that no digital technology can reproduce. The close-ups of actress Constance Cummings looked stunning. I know I’m obligated to work with dvds here, but please never settle for less if there is an opportunity to see a film in 35mm or even on 16mm.

My original review for the March 23rd screening at the Portage Theatre:

In Movie Crazy, Harold Hall is a small-town boy with silver-screen fantasies. But it is only by an accident that he makes it to a sound stage at Planet Studios. He meets Mary (Constance Cummings), an enigmatic actress with a strange desire to test Harold’s loyalty. The film successfully weaves the silent comedy technique of visual gags into a sound film. Harold’s screen test, a clever use of verbal humor, turns into a parody of the overly-dramatic stars of early talkies. The film’s climax on a movie set, with an eerie lack of background music, is one of the many highlights. Though Clyde Bruckman is credited, Lloyd directed most of the picture himself. Determined this time to have a strong script, Lloyd secured the services of Broadway playwright Vincent Lawrence to write the screenplay.

Mary Sears (Constance Cummings) and “Trouble” (Harold Lloyd)

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Just a few points I’d like to elaborate on before we show the film… Chaplin’s success with City Lights inspired Harold to take more care with Movie Crazy. It has a funnier script than his previous film, Feet First, and it relies more on the silent film style than Welcome Danger. For instance, the film opens with a wonderful visual gag in which we think Harold is riding in a car. That is a typical Lloyd moment we could easily imagine seeing in one of his silent films. Likewise, there are sequences in Movie Crazy that are inspired by scenes from his best silent comedies. The dinner party with the magician’s coat reminds us of the Fall Frolic in The Freshman, and Harold’s fight on the movie set is reminiscent of his shipboard fight in The Kid Brother. Both films we have shown in this series, which is another reason why I wanted you to see Movie Crazy. Though recalling the past, these comedy sequences stand on their own. They are so perfectly constructed and executed, especially the gag set-up with the magician’s coat at the gala party.

Constance Cummings

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Constance Cummings plays his co-star in this film. She was born Constance Haverstadt in Seattle in 1910. She became a stage actress and made her Hollywood debut in 1931. Besides Movie Crazy, she had appeared in Frank Capra’s American Madness. She starred in James Whale’s Remember Last Night?— an obscure, mystery-comedy I’m very fond of which I had played back when I used to operate the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago near Six Corners. Constance would eventually leave Hollywood and return to the stage. She had resided in England for many years and in the 1970s was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to British entertainment. She passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.

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When I played Movie Crazy for some friends of mine it didn’t get the reaction I thought the film deserved. One of the criticisms that came up in our post-Movie Night talk was the on again/off again relationship between Mary Sears and Harold. She’s almost schizophrenic in this film since she also plays a Spanish vamp, but I would argue that Mary has a motivation for what she does to Harold. It’s only when he mistakes her for someone else that the charade begins in the first place. She doesn’t initially intend on manipulating him. But I’d like to hear your thoughts about it after you see the film. Does this interplay make you feel uncomfortable? His leading lady is certainly a very independent character, and it’s one of the most complex relationships Harold Lloyd ever had to contend with!

Movie Crazy was directed mostly by Harold. In an interview he said, “I got one of the gag men to direct and he had a little difficulty with the bottle and we practically had to wash him out and I had to carry on… But I still give the credit to this other boy, the gag man, for it…” The other boy with the drinking problem was Clyde Bruckman, and we’ll talk more about him next week when we show Buster Keaton’s The General, a film Bruckman co-directed. (Anyone whose name is associated with perhaps the greatest silent comedy ever made deserves some recognition, no matter how small his contribution may have been as a co-director.)

In an interview with silent film historian Jeffrey Vance, Constance Cummings backed up Harold’s account. “Harold was a very sweet man and was like the character that he played in the film. He was without question the most important person on the set. I believe Harold worked out everything with the director before they would shoot a scene. His directors I think mainly remained in the background and made certain the scene was done the way Harold wanted it. That was the case with Movie Crazy.”

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Movies about movies was a popular subject in the 1930s. Even Buster Keaton had done it in 1930 with Free and Easy, which was set at the MGM studio and which also gives us a look at early talkie-era film production. But the Keaton film, by contrast, was very static and talky. Though far more cinematic, tonight’s film lacks a musical score; the sound of silence is deafening during the climax in which only sound effects are used. We as the audience are so used to film scoring that its absence here strikes an odd chord– or rather, no chord. Despite this, Movie Crazy does succeed in blending the physical comedy of the silent era with dialogue. The past and present Harold Lloyd are successfully fused together for the first time. This was still the silent screen characterization audiences had been familiar with, but now he was able to break the sound barrier with greater confidence.

In Movie Crazy, Harold takes us to a world so many of us are crazy about. Maybe we don’t act out lines of dialogue from movies in our kitchen the way Harold Hall does—at least most of us don’t– but we love movies, and he takes us behind the scenes of the fabled dream factory as it was then. There is a joy and enthusiasm to this film, which makes our one and only excursion into sound that much more rewarding.

“Kiss me, Trouble, and stop thinking. Thinking only brings you confusion.”

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One Response to “Nothing But Trouble: Movie Crazy (1932) by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Harold Lloyd and Constance Cummings were both wonderful in Movie Crazy ( 1932) that surely was slent comedian/filmmaker Harold Lloyd’s best talkie and probably his best film too, Can’t wait to see someone The Harold Lloyd Trust to newly digitally restored and remastered all seven Harold Lloyd talkies the preservation treatment someday and it would be nice to see Universal Home Entertainment to release Lloyd’s last film of the 1930s entitled ‘Professor Beware’ the last film he produced with his own company.

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