Original release: April 20th, hospital 1924
Running time: 87 minutes
Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Writers: : Sam Taylor, Ted Wilde, Tim Whelan, Thomas J. Gray
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Carlton Griffin
It would be wrong of me to malign an entire cinematic genre, but I think it’s fair to say that on the whole I’m not a great fan of the romantic comedy. There are fantastic examples littered throughout the years which I thoroughly invested in – predictable choices like When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings And A Funeral alongside What Women Want, 500 Days of Summer and even, inexplicably, Music & Lyrics. By and large, however, I tend to find myself groaning through a bland couple birling around one another in a narrative riddled with more irksome clichés than you can shake a stick at.
One of the earliest examples of the genre making its bow on the silver screen was in the 1924 Harold Lloyd picture Girl Shy. I distinctly remember stumbling across it having never heard of it before. I’d been itching to see the iconic moment where the aforementioned silent movie star hangs from the clock face in Safety Last! (1923) and along with it in the box set of the comedian’s output was this other film. Knowing absolutely nothing about it, but having enjoyed my first slice of Lloyd I put it on and was utterly captivated. Now, I’d have to cite it as one of my very favourite romantic comedy.
Lloyd stars as The Poor Boy; introverted, stuttering, unable to speak to women, he lives in the small town of Little Bend working as an apprentice to his uncle, a tailor. Despite his social limitations, he embarks on a career as a writer creating a self-help book for other bashful young men. He imagines the best way to seduce a variety of female stereotypes and pens a step-by-step guide. On his way to discuss his masterwork with a publisher he meets and is enchanted by The Rich Girl (Jobyna Ralston). She’s attempting to resist the marital advances of The Rich Man (Carlton Griffin) and she and Harold begin to fall in love. When his book is laughed out of the publishers’ office, he concludes that he’s forever destined to be destitute and isn’t worthy of his beau’s hand. Ashamed, he lies about his feelings and drives her into the arms of The Rich Man. In true romantic comedy fashion, this means that on the day of their wedding Harold must race to the chapel to save his love from the clutches of her nefarious fiancé.
In a time where comedy was often centred on gags and set pieces, this one of the first examples of large swathes of the film devoted to the characters and their romantic entanglements with Lloyd himself noting as much. Rather than the more typical format of the comedic man’s attempts to impress the more serious woman with hilarious consequences, here the romance and comedy were intertwined. The film also lacks, for much of its runtime, the stunt-work for which the star – and the wider comedy landscape – was famous but more than makes up for it with the climactic race across town to win his loved one’s heart. It’s probably the best example of the now tired motif in the history of the genre, as well as being one of the first uses of it.
Every instance of someone tearing through an obligatory airport terminal to stop their true love boarding a flight pales in comparison to Harold’s high octane trip across town that features some of the most impressive stunts of his career. It’s an exhilarating and riotous sequence that illustrates exactly why his slapstick sees him mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and Keaton. Some of the action was purportedly an inspiration for the original Ben-Hur but either way it’s a white-knuckle ride involving trains, horses and automobiles with Harold commandeering vehicles of all shapes and sizes left, right, and centre.
Admittedly, its opening half is not what one might expect arriving at a silent comedy with a star famous for stunts but Lloyd and Ralston are both charming enough to make you forget all about that. Lloyd’s recurring character of ‘The Boy’ is generally something of an everyman and so his struggles to engage with the opposite sex and his naivety endear us to him right away. When the big chase finally begins it ramps things up to such an inventive and breathless level that you almost forget the dearth of physical comedy from the opening acts.
I was completely bowled over by Girl Shy when I first saw it on that day almost by accident. Despite being made-up of all of the themes and tropes that we now expect from romantic films, Lloyd was breaking the mould with this and it really shows. Although I enjoyed Safety Last! and can absolutely understand its iconic status, this film really made me smile and laugh from beginning to end even if it did aid in the birth of a genre which nowadays produces more misfires than hits. You could say that Girl Shy was worth it as it led to It Happened One Night, screwball comedies and Annie Hall, but that would be doing a great disservice to a film that stands toe to toe with them. If you’ve not seen it yet, I’d highly recommend it.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.