The original title of Speedy, made at the height of Harold Lloyd’s reign as American silent comedy’s most profitable screen presence, was to be Rapid Transit, in order to reflect New York City’s burgeoning investment in quickening the pace of public transportation. The discarded title speaks to both Lloyd and director Ted Wilde’s interest in filmmaking as a tool to explore a city’s construction and development in cartographic and economic terms, albeit through the use of an aw-shucks protagonist, elaborate chase sequences, and a cute canine. But the pop elements don’t disguise the fact that Wilde, who must have been infatuated with the city scenes from F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, wished to stage comparable tracking and wide shots of New York within the confines of a slapstick comedy.
The film’s premise is rather formulaic, but no less so than any of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton’s best films. Lloyd plays a soda jerk turned cab driver named Swift, whose two goals include winning the affection of Jane (Ann Christy) and helping her father (Bert Woodruff) avoid being driven out of his small-time trolley-car business by mustached, corporate goons (the silent era had serious facial-hair discrimination issues). But never mind these narrative elements, as Speedy is wholly about the set piece, particularly Lloyd’s efforts to raise the stunt-work stakes following notable efforts like Safety Last! and Girl Shy, each of which let the actor loose within the cityscape so that he could narrowly avert disaster and, more to the point, his own death.
In Speedy, death always seems a stone’s throw away because of the film’s unceasing interest in capturing kinetic movement, either in the form of cars zipping throughout city streets or rides at Coney Island that appear to have been devised with safety as a secondary concern. Wilde shoots scenes at midrange while characters and objects are in motion and refrains from close-ups that would collapse the film’s visual understanding of speed as a new form of currency within any expanding metropolis.
Take a seemingly innocuous sequence at Coney Island, where Swift and Jane bandy about from ride to ride, each subsequent coaster more freed of gravity than the last. At one point, Swift is literally tossed from a ride and lands on his back, feet in the air, which Wilde expectedly plays for a quick laugh, though within the film’s broader milieu of fast-moving machines and steadying corporate infrastructure, the humor morphs from a sight gag into a visual metaphor for the ways physics and economics interlace. In other words, speed up or you’ll end up ass-up.
Of course, Wilde intends that imperative satirically, but the film operates without any in-depth political claims, allowing caricatured men in suits to represent the face of greed and capitalistic dehumanization. Swift remains the loveable doof, but he’s also intended as an audience surrogate because of his hapless wanderings and inability to catch a break. To that end, one sees Hollywood’s nascent inclinations toward condescension manifest here, with the film’s rhythms comprehensively addressing yokels who are presumed to view city life as terrifying in its abandonment of rural calm and envision big city lovin’ as little more than Godless lechery.
That’s why, as an opening title card reads, Swift comes from a part of New York that hadn’t caught up to the speed of NYC. But Speedy isn’t alone in its trepidations regarding compromised sexual decency. After all, Sunrise utilized the very same fear in its chain-smoking succubus from the city, sent to lure away the curious and weak-willed man.
Wilde and Lloyd further show their slightly pandering hand in a Babe Ruth cameo that’s included merely for the sake of stargazing, though the gag, that Ruth is tossed around in the back of a cab because of Swift’s erratic driving, is clever enough since the Bronx Bomber himself assisted in serving as a human arm of the city’s investment in power and exceptionalism. The brief sequence should chill those frightened yokels to the bone, because if the Babe can’t keep pace with big city speed, who could?
As with Safety Last! and The Freshman, the Criterion Collection has done an outstanding job in transferring the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s gorgeous 4K digital restoration onto this new Blu-ray, which boasts nearly flawless video and audio. The image consistently stuns, especially in its clarity and focus, with characters and wide shots of New York City pristine in their presentation. The black-and-white photography is well balanced and timed, while all signs of scratches or marks have been erased, though grain remains present throughout. Furthermore, the 1992 score by Carl Davis has been wonderfully restored and is here presented in uncompressed stereo.
The disc’s rush of extras is almost overwhelming, especially once one arrives at 40 minutes’ worth of Babe Ruth footage from newsreels and other archival sources, compiled by curator David Filipi. For the less devoted viewer, a half-hour documentary called "In the Footsteps of Speedy" provides incredible background information on the film’s production and visits various locations, past and present, within New York City where the shoot took place. The tour is led by Bruce Goldstein, who also provides a feature-length audio commentary alongside TCM’s Scott McGee, for a fascinating litany of historical facts and anecdotes regarding both Harold Lloyd’s career and the film’s production. Also included is a brief video essay using several of the film’s deleted scenes, a selection of Lloyd’s home movies, the 1919 two-reeler Bumping Into Broadway, and an essay by Phillip Lopate on Lloyd’s sensibilities when it came to ensuring audience laughter.
Criterion’s 4K Blu-ray of Speedy zips from end to end with the portent of a body bag.