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Tuesday 21 April 2009

Feet First (1930)

Director: Clyde Bruckman
Star: Harold Lloyd

$15 for a pair of shoes was pretty expensive in 1930, but Tanner shoes are apparently the best and as their slogans runs, 'The world walks on Tanner shoes.' It would seem to be true but not quite in the way the inventors of the slogan intended, given that hobos are carefully cutting out Tanner adverts from the Honolulu paper and pasting them into their own shoes to replace their own worn out soles. One very minor employee of Tanner Shoes is Harold Horne, a mild mannered shop assistant who dreams of being a salesman. He even practices his spiel on the legs of dummies, but his superiors laugh at the concept. Salesmanship is 98% personality, they say, and he just doesn't have it.

Given that he's played by Harold Lloyd, you can be sure that he's going to find a way to get it. This time out it comes through a six month correspondence course from the Personality Plus Corporation on the road to financial freedom. And sure enough he soon has the dynamic get go that he needs to move on upwards, and also to impress the young lady he falls in love with after seeing her through the window, someone who is well out of his class. He finds that out when he meets her in the street, after her chauffeur runs into a truck.

Once he uses his newfound personality to finagle his way into the Embassy Club, he meets her again in the company of Mr Tanner, the man who runs Tanner Shoes. The next hour provides us with gag after gag as Harold tries to impress Miss Barbara, while trying to avoid the fact that he's disaster on legs to her parents. He even ends up stuck on board ship with them as they sail back to Los Angeles, with gag potential everywhere given that he's a stowaway, he's in the magazine everyone's reading as a testimonial for Personality Plus and because this large ship apparently has only one sailor in its entire company who becomes a running gag himself as much as being an integral part of others.

Now this is a Harold Lloyd film, so he knows how to set up a gag, but there's something lacking about this film. The gags themselves are generally solid and some are masterful, but they don't seem to string together too well. In other words the film is chock full of clips well worthy of appearance in any collection of collection of slapstick comedy but as a cohesive film, it just isn't that cohesive. To be fair on Lloyd much of the fault isn't tied to him but to the rest of the cast and presumably to the production itself.

Barbara Kent is a dreamy enough love interest but she's not much more. Her voice is soft enough for the microphones to have problems picking it up. Some scenes have enough background noise for us to have problems with other actors too. Then again this was 1930 and the industry was still working out how sound worked. There are more than a few actors here who are more than a little uncomfortable with delivering lines and obviously would have preferred relying on their size or shape, anything except their voices. We even get one title card, so perhaps this began as a silent.

The last half hour of the film is fascinating, even though it has precisely nothing to do with the rest of the plot. Harold has found his way off the ship and into Los Angeles and he gets stuck on the side of a tall building. Now anyone who's seen Safety Last! knows what he can do on the side of a tall building and he does plenty here, the stuntwork being amazing and the gags no less. But while we sit on the edge of our seat willing Lloyd's safety and survival, the whole thing is actually pretty contrived.

The key prop is a portable scaffold that seems to continually move up and down the building with no other purpose but to help or hinder Lloyd's attempts to get inside, and the key character other than Lloyd himself is a black janitor played by Willie Best, credited as always as Sleep 'n' Eat. Best was a massively talented comedian whose entire routine is dated beyond belief through precisely no fault of his own, and which is often painful to watch in every way but to observe the skill behind it. He pulls out the stops here up to and including reacting to a stuffed gorilla.

Once the sound era hit, Lloyd had gradually decreasing control over his movies as time went by. He was still as talented as he ever was and his films didn't decrease in quality to scary degrees, but they weren't generally up to his expected standard. I've now seen five of Lloyd's seven sound features and this is undoubtably the weakest of the bunch, though it was apparently the most popular. Perhaps audiences left with the last half hour in their mind, rather than the first hour.

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