Monday, April 26, 2010

Report on 'Grandma's Boy' (1922)

An appreciative audience was on hand for our birthday tribute to Harold Lloyd (born April 20, 1893) held at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, April 25. Also on hand was photographer Joanna Rieke, who had the challenging assignment of capturing the shadowy world of silent film accompaniment. She came up with some great and unusual stuff, and I've included a few of her images in this post.

The featured attraction was 'Grandma's Boy' (1922), which drew a strong reaction right from the prologue, when Harold appears as an infant in horn-rimmed glasses. The sequence where Harold must rid himself of a litter of kittens drew roars, and the subsequent scenes of Harold and his rival eating mothballs provoked sustained laughter, climaxed when both men drink what they think is water, but isn't. Once a film gets going like this, I try to keep the scoring low so as not to step on the laughter. At some point, you really don't have to play! Another big burst of laughter came from the first glimpse of the portrait of Harold's grandfather, with his square horn-rimmed glasses. How interesting to think that an audience could "get" Lloyd's character in that way, even without sustained exposure. The same thing happened recently when we screened 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928); during the "trying on hats" sequence, the audience cracked up when Keaton hastily removed his traditional porkpie. (I think showing the short 'Cops' (1922) beforehand helped a bit.)

In 'Grandma's Boy,' music can really add something, I think, when the film's tone shifts from parlor antics to scenes of the manhunt, and I was happy with how this turned out: as the sheriff (Noah Young, for once not playing a dunce) recounted the events in the flashback, the music deepened and darkened, so when we come back to present, the stakes are that much higher, which not only heightens the comedy, but sets the stage for Harold's transformation. In his book "The Silent Clowns," Walter Kerr described Lloyd as an "architect of sympathy," and I see what he meant: everything in this films plays a role in getting us to root for Lloyd.

By the way, people often rag on the old "Time-Life" versions of Harold's films that were shown on TV in the 1970s (when I first got to see them), but I remember being impressed with sequences such as when the dam money is discovered missing in 'The Kid Brother,' and how the ominous music helped signal how things had changed. Suddenly things get serious, and music can really help communicate that extra layer of tension.

I also know what Kerr meant when he remarked on Lloyd's use of the "double climax." When Lloyd snaps the cuffs on the tramp, our audience broke out in cheers and applause, as if that was what the film was aiming for, and it sure seemed so at the time. But actually, a lot more was in store, and the result of Lloyd's structure heightened reaction to all the ups and downs that followed. Lloyd's instincts in telling a story on film were sure enough to hold an audience and deliver big laughs nine decades later.

I've done this film before (we run it a lot because it's one of the few Lloyd features in the public domain), but in the past I've always used themes borrowed from other pictures I've done. This time, however, I was able to come up with all original material, including a jaunty "main theme" in 4/4 that worked well for all the small town action, but was transformable into something much more dynamic for the darker "tramp is on the loose" sequences. I also had a "hope" melody that helped set the mood for grandma's eventual role in Harold's transformation, and a weird chord signature for when the Zuni charm made its appearances.

If you know the film, then you know a key musical sequence happens when Mildred Davis serenades Harold on the parlor organ. A brief glimpse of the sheet music shows the tune to be "You Are the Ideal of My Dreams," but the only lyrics that Mildred is quoted actually belting out are from the chorus: "I love you, I love you, I LOVE YOU!!!" For this, I came up with a 3/4 tune that sounded to me like it would fit those words, and guess what? The original tune by Herbert Ingraham from 1910 turned out to be almost exactly the same! It's such a classic that I'm sure it worked its way into my subconscious somehow, but how interesting that we came up with virtually the same melody and harmony for those key words exactly 100 years apart.

Rather than quote the whole ballad, I engaged in a little dramatic compression, extending the "love you" melody into a self-contained 16-bar tune that cycles around in different keys as Harold deals with kittens licking his shoes. And, happily, this tune was versatile enough, I thought, to be played uptempo in 2/4 for the opening titles, and also in a dramatic "this is it" way to underscore Harold's sudden actions at the end, with the playout fitting perfectly with the amusing final fadeout.

In terms of setting the scene beforehand, the only thing I told the audience was that they had to do the usual "time-shifting" in order to understand what Harold was getting at with the Civil War suit, which would have been the equivalent of wearing your grandfather's 1940s zoot suit today. (Which actually might be cool. How would I know?) But afterwards, a woman asked me about the reason for knocking the piece of wood off Harold's shoulder. I thought the "chip on your shoulder" metaphor would still be commonly understood, but guess not. Time passes.

'Grandma's Boy' somehow doesn't seem to make it on the list of Harold's all-time great pictures, but the more we screen it, the more respect I have for it. First, it NEVER FAILS to get a reaction, even when we screened it last fall to a total of 12 people at the historic Colonial Theatre in Keene, N.H. Also, there's a lot to this film that only repeated viewings have revealed to me. (Yes, I'm slow on the uptake.) For instance: the Civil War flashback has Harold's grandfather dodging cannonfire by energetically zigzagging back and forth; later, the same method is used by Harold to avoid the tramp's gunfire, but you barely notice it before the film moves on to something else.

All in all, a remarkable film and great audience experience. Happy birthday, Harold!

No comments:

Post a Comment