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Movie Crazy

1932. Monarch. Directed by Clyde Bruckman, screenplay by Vincent Lawrence. With Harold Lloyd, Constance Cummings

Having caused one disaster after another, Harold Lloyd sputters "I am speechless. This is beyond words!" If only! This movie would have been so much better as a silent. And yet Lloyd's reedy voice is so in keeping with his eager-to-please character that he fares better than many other silent comedians did in talkies.

Lloyd plays Harold Hall, a movie-struck Kansas boy who accidentally sends someone else's photo to Planet Studios and gets invited out for a screen test. The motif of mistaken identity—more precisely, of real identity versus movieland identity—continues throughout. Harold becomes friendly with a blonde actress and also smitten with a dark, exotic Senorita he meets on a movie set, and he ricochets between the two without realizing that they are the same person. The actress's onscreen leading man is also her offscreen suitor. He acts suave on the set but blubbers drunkenly in real life. In the climactic scene, Harold and this actor battle it out on a pirate ship set with the cameras running, a fictitious scene turning earnest.

This is one of two really interesting sequences in the movie, but I'll tackle the other one—Harold's screen test—first. We already know that Harold is getting the test because of a misunderstanding, that he is painfully accident-prone, and that he's made enemies of many people at the studio after inadvertently ruining a location shoot.. We cringe when Harold, asked what kind of parts he plays, declares "Heroes!" and is issued a silk dressing gown and a sexy leading lady and directed to the "modern set."

But we don't see him make the test. We only see the results along with the studio brass who gather in the screening room to check out the handsome new leading man they've been led to expect. As the test starts up, the camera moves in on the screen until we can't see the frame lines and that film becomes "our" film. It's wonderful. In the scene he's been assigned, Harold has to answer the phone and learn that he's been wiped out in the stock market. Well! He picks up the phone before it rings. Cut! He ignores the phone when it does ring. Cut! He gets tangled in the phone wires. He knocks the phone into a drawer, packs it into his suitcase, flings it over his head, etc. Take after take is ruined. To add to the fun, the camera keep rolling between takes but the projectionist speeds through these parts, making Harold and the director and the clapboard man jump around and talk in high-pitched gibberish.

It's a brilliant choice to let us see this debacle being screened rather than being filmed. It's much funnier this way. For one thing, there's less anxiety since it's all over and done with; we can relax and enjoy a fait accompli rather than suffer along with Harold. Second, we can imagine the dismay of the screening-room audience, who we are in a sense standing in for (shrewdly, there are no reaction shots of them while the test is running). This gives us a double-view of what we are seeing. Best of all, watching this movie within a movie reminds us of the constructed nature of the rest of Movie Crazy, and of every movie. When, without warning, the film speeds up and Harold starts talking like Alvin the Chipmunk, we have to acknowledge that both Harold Hall and Harold Lloyd are plastic objects, not human beings.

At the end of Movie Crazy Harold finally gets into a movie (inadvertently of course) and causes all the chaos we knew he would. This time we see it as it is happening. Harold is unconscious inside a trunk that gets pulled onto the set where Mary and her leading man are filming the climax of their Spanish Main picture. Harold revives just in time to see this guy manhandling Mary, and of course he leaps to her defense. The director has given instructions to keep the cameras turning no matter what (always a mistake), so the stage hands keep pumping in water, the wind machine keeps blowing, the set keeps rocking, Mary keeps swooning, etc., while Harold and his rival nearly drown each other.

We've seen this many times before—an unsophisticated person mistaking a staged scene for something that's actually happening. On one level, it's absurd; as anyone who's ever been on a movie set knows, there is no way a person could ignore the lights, the crew, the camera and believe he's really on a ship. But the important thing to Harold, a literal guy, is that Mary is being threatened by that drunken actor, never mind that they're in costumes and makeup at the moment. When he pops from his hiding place and starts pummeling the guy, Harold is in a sense rejecting all that playacting stuff and asserting the primacy of real life and genuine emotions. Predictably, his impassioned reaction also makes for great cinema. The assistant director looks on delighted. The studio head stops to watch, loves the "comedy," and declares "We must sign him at once!" Harold protests, "That was a real fight. I wasn't acting. I ruined everything." But the studio head, no dummy, declares, "You made me laugh whether you intended to or not." Once again, a kid has become a star on the basis of his natural qualities. By rejecting movies, he succeeds in movies. This is the paradox of the backstage film: artificiality and genuineness keep trumping one another.

Movie Crazy offers wonderful behind-the-scenes movie studio atmosphere. We hear the director and cameraman talking quite realistically, even technically. During a location shoot, we notice the camera tracks and the cables on the ground, and watch how the assistants keep onlookers back and quiet. We tour the sound stages with Harold, passing a snowed-in cabin, a row of palm trees, a cozy living room, a bombed-out village, and a couple of bathing beauties cavorting in front of a back-projection screen. To set up the big fight scene, we're carefully introduced to the camera, the sound recorder, the wind machine, the lights, the water tank. Like many set-in Hollywood movies, Movie Crazy is partly a documentary about studio life in the early 1930s, and it's fascinating to see.



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copyright ©2004 Barbara Bernstein