By Anne Morra
We kick off the new film series Modern Matinees with the 1922 Harold Lloyd (American, 1893–1971) silent feature Grandma’s Boy. As an unexpected confluence of film programming and film history, Grandma’s Boy was first released on September 3, 1922—93 years ago this week—so it seems like an opportunity to take a deeper look into the film and its bespectacled star, Harold Lloyd.
Lloyd had developed the onscreen character “The Boy” in 1917 as the follow-up to his previous “Lonesome Luke” persona. The Boy was gentle, kind to animals and old people, somewhat myopic, and often the focus of a bully’s torment. In Grandma’s Boy, the then 29-year-old Lloyd plays a tender and sympathetic teen who longs for the hand of the pretty girl next door. When a more aggressive suitor pushes him aside and woos the young lady with great success, the Boy accepts his fate and complains to his feisty Grandma that he has lost the love of his life. Grandma consoles the Boy and urges him to set his mind to success and not failure.
When their quiet town of Blossom Bend is rocked by a series of criminal occurrences, the Boy joins the locals in a citizens’ brigade to find the thief. Once he realizes he could be in danger, the Boy runs away from the mob and back to Grandma’s house, where he bemoans his cowardice. Grandma is a wise woman and tells the Boy a story about his grandfather, who fought heroically in the Civil War. A flashback scene, with Lloyd playing the grandfather, relates the soldier’s sturdy and fearless actions on the battlefield. At the end of the story, Grandma gives the Boy a talisman that his grandfather kept in his kit while in the service. Empowered by Grandma’s pep talk and believing in the magic of the charm, the Boy, no longer jittery, rounds up the town thief and routs the bully, too. In the end, the Boy gets the girl and learns from his Grandma that he possessed inner strength the whole time; the “talisman” was nothing more than the broken top of an umbrella handle!
Most filmgoers are familiar with the iconic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from a building while holding only the hands of a clock in Safety Last (1923). Lloyd performed that stunt—and many others—across his extensive film career. Something of a daredevil, and quite the opposite of his fragile Boy character, Lloyd adored stunts, physical comedy, and adventure. On August 24, 1919, he arrived at the Witzel Photography Studio in Los Angeles to pose for a series of publicity shots. Not unlike today, the more sensational the subject of a movie star’s photograph, the logic went, the more likely audiences would clamor to see their latest film. Lloyd agreed to hold what he believed to be a prop “bomb” in his hand, to be detonated for the photo. Tragically, the bomb was no prop, and he lost two fingers. Lloyd convalesced from the accident for most of 1919—and thereafter wore a flesh-colored rubber glove on his right hand.
Lloyd worked from the earliest days of silent cinema through 1947, when he appeared in the Preston Sturges film The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Few comedy stars from the silent era had such a considerable career in the sound era.
When Iris Barry and John Abbott dined at Pickfair in August 1935, Lloyd and his wife Mildred Davis—who costars in Grandma’s Boy, and who remained married to Lloyd from 1923 until her death in 1969—were present to hear Barry’s plans for a film department at The Museum of Modern Art. It is fitting to commence Modern Matinees with Grandma’s Boy, as Lloyd was one of the first Hollywood stars to endorse Barry’s concept of a film library within a museum.
Our September 2 screening of Grandma’s Boy will feature piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin and vocals by Joanna Seaton. Seaton will perform the song “You Are the Ideal of My Dreams,” sung in the film by Mildred Davis.
Read more here:: Modern Matinees: Focus on Grandma’s Boy