Speedy d. Ted Wilde (1928) The Criterion Collection Spine: #788 Blu-ray Release Date: December 8, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.
When I first watched Speedy a few years ago I just pulled it up on Criterion’s Hulu Plus channel. I had seen and loved Lloyd’s masterpiece Safety Last! on Criterion’s Blu-ray, and I wanted to see what else I could. I was unimpressed. I was bored. I was stupid!
Rewatching Speedy on Criterion’s new Blu-ray was a beautiful new experience with the film. It looks beautiful, and I’m sure that the ability to see the film clearly contributed a lot to my enjoyment, particularly since so much of my enjoyment is found in the details around the frame. I might as well admit this: I also think that I enjoyed it more because this time I was not hoping for a repeat of Safety Last!, which is a silly way to approach any film. Rather, this time I approached the film on its own, and found so much to love and treasure.
Speedy was Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, and he wanted to film it in New York City. Most people thought he was nuts. Perhaps by the end of the shoot Lloyd thought they were right: the first title card says, “New York, where everybody is in such a hurry that they take Saturday’s bath on Friday so they can do Monday’s washing on Sunday.” Nevertheless, he went east in the fall of 1927, and thanks to that we get some spectacular looks at New York City in this unique pre-Great Depression era.
And maybe that’s why I loved the film so much this time around. As a love letter to New York City — and, importantly, to the 1927 New York Yankees — the film is a nostalgic, albeit romanticized, glance back in more ways than one. The gags are there, to be sure, and they are fun and often sophisticated, but they are even better when seen in the context of the day-to-day life that surrounds the film. Here we have an ordinary man making his way in this extraordinary city at this extraordinary time.
Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift, and we quickly find that he is kind and thoughtful to those he loves but that he is incapable of holding down a job. For one thing, he loves baseball too much. He must have a job that is within phoning distance of Yankee stadium. Naturally, he is not the most productive employee.
But perhaps he can be forgiven somewhat. After all, the team he’s watching is the 1927 New York Yankees, often called the greatest team in baseball history. An early shot of the batting lineup shows the famous Murderer’s Row: Combs, Koenig, Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, and Lazzeri. At the time this film was being shot, around Labor Day 1927, the Yankee’s return to the World Series was a certainty. We can maybe forgive anyone who wanted to take the time to enjoy that swiftly passing season in history.
And Speedy is loved by a very forgiving woman, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy).
Jane’s father is less impressed, often cajoling, though lovingly, Speedy to get serious and work. Pop Dillon, “one of New York’s and nature’s noblemen,” is a diligent worker. For years he has been running the very last horse car in New York. Notably, the last horse car in New York had actually ceased to run a decade before Speedy was filmed, so Pop Dillon and his job are in their own ways nostalgic callbacks even for 1927.
In the first act, we learn that a businessman needs Pop Dillon to sellout his route so that he can formulate a major merger for street cars. Pop Dillon is willing to sell for $10,000.00, but Speedy, knowing that the businessman has a lot to gain, makes a tiny line on Pop’s demand: $70,000.00. This sends the businessman packing, and Speedy and Pop make plans for the future. Pop will keep running his track; as long as he makes his route once very 24 hours, the car and track are his (this was a real law). Speedy, meanwhile, plans to take Jane to Coney Island!
Perhaps this is where the film lost me the first time around. The second act at Coney Island is quite long and takes us away from the conflict set up in the first act. This time I really didn’t care. Speedy and Jane are having a day out, and watching their relationship continue to develop at Coney Island, on a Sunday when they could take a breath and not worry so much about the immediate need for work bur rather about the longer, more substantial future of their relationship was wonderful. The beautifully developed, subtle gags are icing on the cake.
Once they return to the real world after their excursion to Coney Island, things are worse than ever. The businessman is going to his shady contacts to force Pop Dillon out. Speedy needs to make sure that horse car runs its track within just a few hours or all is lost, setting up the elaborate finale: a horse car racing through the streets of Manhattan. Again, while the horse car race is fun on its own, this Blu-ray release opens up the structures surrounding the action — and it’s lovely.
The film is special for many reasons, but my greatest delight is in its depiction of the end of an era — and era that probably never really existed. Things are glorious: the Yankees are winning, the jobs, even if we lose them, are abundant, and it’s sunny at Coney Island. Things would change dramatically over the next few years when the Great Depression hit, so this is a rose-colored window worth peaking through.
The Criterion Edition: One of the reasons this release looks so great is that the film was wonderfully well preserved and those great elements were the basis for the 4K digital restoration Criterion provides us.
- The disc comes with a full-length audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum (and who’s all over this disc) and Scott McGee, the TCM director of program production. The track is conversational, and both clearly know an awful lot about Lloyd and about Speedy. Where the track really shines, though, is when Goldstein talks about the filming locations and the history of New York (the horse car and Coney Island in particular). I also love that they point out a moment I’d not seen, when Lou Gehrig walks by and sticks his tongue out at the camera.
- In the Footsteps of Speedy: This is a 31:05-minute documentary in which Goldstein takes us through the locations in Speedy, whether in New York, in Los Angeles, or on a set. This was my favorite supplement; though Goldstein talks about this stuff in the commentary, here he is able to slow things down, show us pictures, and really look at the details. This pays off immensely when he covers the horse car wreck — which doesn’t seem to have been deliberate!
- Babe Ruth: I was really looking forward to the 40:24-minute supplement on Babe Ruth, in which David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts, takes us through Babe Ruth’s story with rare archival footage. I was thrilled that Ruth’s cameo in the film led to a long supplement, but I didn’t find the supplement that engaging or interesting.
- Goldstein returns in the next supplement, which runs a mere 4:24 minutes but that still feels like a wealth of material, in which he looks at production stills that show other gags and locations that were abandoned. This is my second-favorite supplement on the disc.
- Next we get 17:45 minutes of Lloyd’s home movies from around the time Speedy was filmed. These are narrated by his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd. I was a bit wary going into this supplement, but it was delightful and interesting. Watching Lloyd without his glasses and with his freckles as he plays with his wife and daughter is a nice look behind the scenes.
- Last, we get the Lloyd’s 1919 two-reeler “Bumping into Broadway,” which was newly also restored. Though filmed in Los Angeles, with Speedy this is the only Lloyd film set in New York. It is also notable for being the first two-reeler to feature Lloyd in his famous glasses.