Harold Lloyd, Hal Roach, and Captain Kidd's Kids
Harold Lloyd’s work from the beginning of his career in 1914 until 1923 was produced by Hal Roach Studios. This work includes Captain Kidd’s Kids, a two-reeler released in March of 1920 (Dardis 318)—which will be discussed later. Originally, Roach was an extra for Universal Studios, where he met Harold Lloyd on a movie set. He made a prophetic claim one day that would have lasting implications on the course of silent comedy: that someday he would produce his own comedy films instead of taking work where it came as a minor actor, and—most importantly—that Lloyd would star in his films (Dardis 26).
Inheriting $3000 in 1914 was a major windfall for the producing career of Hal Roach (Dardis 29).He produced shoddily-made films that got little to no attention, but finally did produce some saleable movies when he met up with Harold Lloyd again later in the year. With his success growing, his studio grew, too. According to Wikipedia.org, Hal Roach had to relocate his studio that was at first located in downtown Los Angeles, to Culver City, California, due to zoning laws.
Before going their separate ways, Lloyd had been Roach’s top draw and most profitable act. Yet he was not the only film star that Roach produced in the 1920s. According to Wikipedia.org, Roach also worked with Will Rogers, the Our Gang kids (also known as the Little Rascals), and, most significantly, Laurel & Hardy. Thus, few producers could rival him in that decade, the most competition coming from Mack Sennett, founder of Keystone Studios.
The 30s saw Roach extending the length of his Laurel & Hardy pieces to feature length since shorts were becoming less profitable. Roach’s Wikipedia entry notes that Roach’s focus constantly shifted; by 1940, even Laurel & Hardy were cast aside in favor of “sophisticated farces” and “rugged action fare.” By 1955, Roach had retired from active producing. A testament to the ephemeral nature of Hollywood fame, his 14.5 acre studio, nicknamed the “Lot of Fun,” was torn down in 1963 to make space for industry.
Hal Roach directed Captain Kidd’s Kids, along with many, but not all of, the Lloyd films he produced. Although Roach and Lloyd made an effective and successful comedy team of actor and director, Lloyd had some issues with Roach’s style of directing. He often felt that he knew more than Roach about filmmaking. Lloyd believed that Roach gave up too early in making a quality product, shooting films as if it were a chore. After initially putting a decent amount of effort into directing a film, Roach would run out of steam toward the end. According to Tom Dardis, “Roach found the two-reel length tedious. . . he would often ask after a week or so of shooting, ‘How much footage have we now?’ When he got the answer, he would call out, ‘Well, boys, let’s finish her up,’ and shoot the remainder as if he had a train to catch.”(55-56). Needless to say, Roach’s lack of enthusiasm is a likely a large part of why Lloyd wanted to work for himself instead of Hal Roach Studios.
There were other issues as well that led to the duo’s disbanding in 1923. For example, Roach demanded that Harold Lloyd go to every day of film shootings, even when he would not be filmed on camera all day. “Roach’s notion was that Harold’s presence was a morale-builder for the rest of the company,” Tom Dardis writes (59). One day in particular, Lloyd failed to show up altogether, which infuriated Roach, and raised the tension between the two so much that “Harold went home to begin thinking for the first time about leaving [Hal Roach Studios].” Therefore, while some critics might argue that Lloyd and Roach split over monetary disputes, and that very well may be a part of the schism, money was not everything to Lloyd: “Harold must have been aware that more than dollars was involved: it was independence that he craved” (Dardis 61). Lloyd would not be satisfied until he had more say in his own films’ direction.
The star of Captain Kidd’s Kids as his recurring character, The Boy, Harold Lloyd has come to be known as a uniquely cinematic talent. Unlike his peers with backgrounds in vaudeville acting—most notably Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—Lloyd was “a product of the film industry” (HaroldLloyd.com). According to his official website, “Lloyd learned to use the camera the way other comics used a bowler hat or a funny walk.” One might argue that as a promotional tool for the estate of Harold Lloyd, the website might just be making unfounded claims to make Lloyd look better. Yet there is credence to its claim. Consider Lloyd’s famous comic image from Safety Last!, where he “has to climb the side of a skyscraper as a publicity stunt for the store where he works” (Thompson 153-154). Thompson and Bordwell write that “thrill comedies” like Safety Last! with simultaneously hilarious and nerve-wracking hazardous stunts were Lloyd’s trademark specialty. Such stunts could not take place onstage in a play or vaudeville act; it would be too difficult and expensive to set up. It is a prime example of a humorous scene that would not be possible without the medium of cinema, which Lloyd knew full well how to use to its maximum potential.
After nearly a decade of working with Hal Roach, Lloyd went on to star in several wildly popular feature-length, self-produced comedies, including Girl Shy, The Freshman, and Speedy. These successes led him to become immensely wealthy. His wide appeal led him to strike an incredibly lucrative deal with Paramount. In exchange for the right to distribute his films, Paramount was willing to give to Harold “77 ½ percent of the domestic gross and 90 percent of the foreign—unheard-of terms at this time” (Dardis 167).
Lloyd’s career began to slow down with the dawning of the sound era, making only five movies in the thirties, after which he retired until making one last screen appearance in 1947’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Nevertheless, his work has left a lasting impression. His daring stunts and slapstick comedy have been mimicked countless times over the decades, and still continue to inspire contemporary comedians.
Captain Kidd’s Kids: Its Genre and its Style
Captain Kidd’s Kids belongs to the genre of the silent comedy. As Thompson and Bordwell write, the comedies of the 1910s were lighthearted and simplistic slapstick shorts that accompanied longer, more highly-esteemed films. Harold Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, aimed on elevating the status of the comedy by “creating stronger stories that would support their physical gags” (Thompson 154). Thus, early film comedy would not necessarily lose its characteristic physical humor. Gags were still a mainstay in Lloyd’s works, but also important were the plot and characters. Comedians were finally pressed to write meaningful films, which enabled critics to view comedy not just as trivial jokes but as an art.
Captain Kidd’s Kids, in particular, contains a lot of interesting social commentary. Before getting to that, however, it’s important to get a summary glance of the essential storyline. A well-to-do playboy awakens from his bachelor party to find out that his wife-to-be and her mother know about his shenanigans. The shrewish mother coerces her daughter into postponing the marriage and taking a trip to the Canary Islands. The Boy cannot tolerate failure, and so plans to meet his fiancé there. On the ship to the Islands, the Boy dreams that he is abducted by a boatload of female pirates who have him do chores and threaten to make him walk the plank. When he wakes up, the Boy finds his fiancé and is a changed man, no longer willing to lose out on a wife just because of her bossy mother.
Stepping back, then, we can see that the comedy in the story comes from witnessing a reversal of roles in the Boy’s life. The very first scene’s mise-en-scène tells all about his character: his house is cluttered from the massive party the night before. Wine glasses and random articles of women’s clothing are everywhere. He has a throbbing hangover headache, which he attempts to cure by sleeping on a block of ice. He even seems content to wear long underwear all day until he finds out that he must regain his beloved. Thus, in his dream, he transforms from a lazy, decadent man of leisure with a hapless valet to do his chores for him, to a deck scrubber on a pirate ship led by a cruel lady pirate. The Boy’s valet becomes his tormenter, who orders him around the same way the Boy had done to him. Women do not bow to his commands as he is used to, as is indicated from the remnants of his wild party, but instead force him to follow their demands. In short, the dream world on the pirate ship is a reverse of the real world for the Boy. Such a reversal, even in dream form, is so bothersome to the Boy that he talks back to his fiancé’s mother and retakes her as his wife-to-be. It is in his best interest to maintain the old order of people’s submission to him, and thus we see some social commentary on the upper class.
This act of comedy through reversal of roles is also evident in the work of Charlie Chaplin. In The Immigrant, Chaplin’s Tramp character is a foreigner moving to America. His outfit illustrates his destitution: his clothes do not fit him correctly, which indicates that they are old or that he just found them somewhere and started wearing them. Americans in the movie think very little of him—the authorities on the boat are quick to assume that he stole someone’s money, and the waiter in America constantly shoots him dirty, distrusting looks. Yet in the end, the tables are turned, and his role of being a poor, unfortunate man is reversed. Chaplin uses an American’s tip to pay for his and his girlfriend’s food. The waiter then becomes fuming mad at the American for unintentionally not leaving any tip, which puts the Tramp in the position of advantage because he at least left a small gratuity. He also cures his condition of loneliness by finding a woman from his boat to America and marrying her.
On Easy Street, Chaplin’s comedy of role reversal manifests in a different way. A silly weakling of a man signs up to become a police officer because he has no job and needs money, and he somehow manages to put criminals in jail by luck. We know that the Tramp cannot defeat a big burly goon in honest hand-to-hand combat, which makes it all the more funny when he suddenly thinks to use the gas in the street light lamps to knock the troublemaker unconscious. Essentially by accident, a goofball becomes a city hero and respected citizen, which is funny because it is unexpected.
The social commentary implied by role reversals varies from movie to movie, but all of these scenarios prove that humor can come out of situations where a character suddenly takes on traits opposite of what they were at the film’s beginning. These situations not only cause audiences to laugh, but to think about questions of identity and social roles. Lloyd had no monopoly on this technique, but does use it effectively in Captain Kidd’s Kids by re-reversing the roles when the Boy wakes up. The Boy reasserts his wealth by kicking his valet, who treated him poorly in his dream, and reasserts his masculinity by taking the power away from his fiancé’s mother. His carnivalesque dream of an upside-down world serves as a wake-up call. He must prove to others that he has power and agency, or else he may lose it. Again, the existence of this social commentary in the film proves that the work of Harold Lloyd is not just silly fluff, but actually has meaningfulness and literary merit that make his films worth contemplating more than if they were just mindless minstrel shows.
Dardis, Tom. Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock. New York: Viking, 1983.
“Hal Roach.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 12 Sept. 2007. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 Sept . 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hal_Roach&oldid=157412861>.
“Biography and Filmography.” HaroldLloyd.com. 2007. The Harold Lloyd Trust & Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc. 27 Sept. 2007. <http://www.haroldlloyd.com/news/default.asp>
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.