Harold Lloyd in “An Eastern Westerner” (1920)
In the holy Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd trinity of silent film comedians, I find Harold Lloyd the funniest. Charlie Chaplin moves me to tears with his Victorian pathos and Buster Keaton amazes me with inspiring physical acrobatics and obsessive problem solving. But it’s Harold Lloyd that makes me laugh, often out loud, and for a very long time. The Harold Lloyd character, “Glasses Guy” we’ll call him, is certainly the most relatable of the three. In Lloyd’s spunky success-driven go getter, we can see our own unfailing optimism that persistence and hard work will pay off, by gosh! But, sadly, in the ultimately disappointing An Eastern Westerner, Lloyd doesn’t quite play this well-loved and funny character.
An Eastern Westerner features a spoiled and privileged East Coast playboy who has stayed out shimmying all night one too many times for his frustrated father. As a punishment for his blase recklessness, Dad ships him off to his uncle’s ranch in the wild west. In the town of Piute Pass, a bad man named “Tiger Lips” Tompkins is holding a girl’s father hostage until she agrees to, um, submit to him. Of course, “Glasses Guy” falls in love with her and amid some classic frantic slapstick antics, save her father and wins her hand.
As this synopsis illustrates, An Eastern Westerner is a slapstick in the purest sense. The plot is less than flimsy and serves only to create the loose scenario for some sight gags and chases. It would seem to have a lot of potential for the funny dissonance of the foppish rich boy dropped into a dusty frontier town, but this doesn’t quite pan out. The East coast setup runs for nearly half of this short film’s length, leaving little time to exploit those city boy in the country comic possibilities. Lloyd’s exploits in Piute Pass seem, well, too easy.
Of course, An Eastern Westerner is funny. And there are several truly memorable moments, most notably an extended poker game gag. When Harold Lloyd transforms his appearance by removing his glasses, mussing his hair, and using his bow tie as a fake mustache… well, that’s comedy. But overall this short just seems very, very light, not only on substance by on laughs. I don’t think I would have made this observation a month ago, but having recently spent a week watching Buster Keaton shorts, I was reminded of just how substantive, hilarious, and innovative 20 minutes of movie can be.
My chief complaint about An Eastern Westerner though is the absence of the Harold Lloyd that I expect, the Lloyd that I know and love. He’s not a hapless go-getter in this movie. He’s a spoiled rich kid, and it’s not a role that he wears well. In this short, “Glasses Guy” is too knowing, too suave, too assured – even when he loses. Here Lloyd isn’t forced to struggle for his ultimate success, he’s already successful if temporarily handicapped, and there’s little doubt that he’ll eventually return to his Manhattan mansion.
If you’re unfamiliar with Harold Lloyd and his superb feature films, skip An Eastern Westerner and start with one of the features (if you’re really unfamiliar, watch Safety Last immediately). If you are familiar with Lloyd go ahead and give An Eastern Westerner a view. It is funny, after all, especially that poker scene. It is availbale for viewing on YouTube, in three parts.