Harold Lloyd is terrified of women but makes up for it by writing about his romantic conquests conquering vamps and flappers with skill. (In his own mind, anyway.) Then he meets a real, honest-to-goodness Jobyna Ralston and falls head over heels. Can he overcome his girl shy ways and find true romance?
Pre-Internet, Thank Heaven
When I announced that I wanted to do a month of feel-good silent films, I received all sorts of great suggestions but one title that cropped up again and again was Girl Shy. In fact, every time the subject of silent films that make people happy is brought up, Girl Shy is one of the first and most popular titles to be discussed. While it doesn’t have the iconic clock scene of Safety Last, I must say that in my experience, Girl Shy is easily one of the most beloved Harold Lloyd features among my circle of nerds. (Of course, you may have a different favorite, which is fine too. I would never deny somebody’s right to love a silent film.)
Lloyd is, as usual, the Boy. In this case, Harold, a tailor’s assistant who suffers from severe anxiety whenever he is called upon to interact with a woman. He shakes and stutters until someone shocks him out of it with a whistle or other loud noise. Harold may be a tailor by day but he has big dreams and so by night, he types up his memoirs. His love memoirs.
The Secret of Making Love tells of how Harold tamed both a vamp and a flapper with his masterful ways. (Flapper stories of the time tended to end with Flaming Youth being domesticated by stodgy lovers.) Of course, not a word of it is true but Harold is proud enough of his writing to seek publication in the city. (We can thank heaven there was no internet at the time or Harold would probably be writing mean emails to female video game critics or stalking the cast of The Last Jedi on social media.)
Incidentally, the vamp fad was well and truly dead by this point and Harold treating it like a going concern would have been viewed as hilarious to audiences of the time. Theda Bara, Valeska Suratt and Louise Glaum were all seen as yesterday’s news by the late-1910s and early 1920s, just look at their filmographies. Heck, Cecil B. DeMille had poked fun at vamps back in his 1921 film The Affairs of Anatol. The featured vamp in that film was named Satan Synne (!) and played by Bebe Daniels, Lloyd’s original leading lady who had parted ways with him after receiving a lucrative offer from DeMille.
Meanwhile, back in the film, rich Mary Buckingham (Jobyna Ralston) is motoring in the country. She has a suitor, Ronald Devore (Carlton Griffin), but he just doesn’t quite do it for her. Her car breaks down and she is obliged to travel back to the city by train. However, they won’t let her Pomeranian on board. Harold comes to the rescue and scoops up the little dog, carrying it back to its delighted owner.
As meet cutes go, this is as cute as can be. Harold is terrified of Mary but the team effort to keep the Pomeranian concealed breaks the ice and he is soon chattering away about his book. Sigh.
Tip: In general, women find a man who is kind to animals to be far more appealing than one with tales of romantic conquests. Harold’s good deed and shyness are what won Mary over and they are what made her want to hear about his book.
Of course, things can’t be entirely smooth and there are a few obstacles to get over before these kids can find romantic bliss but we expected that, didn’t we?
Spoiler: Girl Shy ends with an epic chase to the alter in order to prevent Mary from marrying Ronald. Lloyd changes vehicles, gets involved in a shooting car chase and basically wrecks half of Southern California in order to get to the nuptials in time to stop them. (“I’m surprised you didn’t talk about The Graduate.” Honey, never be surprised when I don’t talk about The Graduate.) It’s all very amusing and I admire the team’s dedication but (blasphemy alert!) it did go on a hair too long for my taste. Keep in mind that slapstick and chase comedy is not really my cup of tea.
I actually enjoyed the smaller comedy touches. For example, Lloyd’s character’s shyness manifests itself in stuttering whenever there is a woman around. On paper it would seem that such a trait would be an odd one for a silent movie but Lloyd’s acting combined with Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor’s clever direction makes it a nifty sight gag. Lloyd struggles and strains to get his words out until Ralston is able to locate some sort of whistle. It’s cute.
I should also mention that the notion of romantic props was quite a popular one in silent era love stories. Obviously, it’s a great visual way to demonstrate that the characters are thinking of one another. I have to say that directors who played this particular device straight did tend to overbutter things a bit (Lillian Gish making out with her lover’s letters, those Kewpie dolls in Adam’s Rib, etc.) so Lloyd and company didn’t have to do much to tip the trope over into goofy-ish territory.
On the train, Harold and Mary make use of a box of dog biscuits and Cracker Jack and they each keep a box to remind themselves of their happy hours spent together. Girl Shy walks a delicate line here and presents the souvenirs as both silly and romantic. But then again, love can be a bit silly, can’t it? (This film is sometimes credited as one of the first comedies to feature humorous antics from both the male and female leads. I guess these people have never heard of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. Sigh.)
The story hinges on another bit of funny business: those memoirs. Turns out that even though they are terrible, they are terrible in an amusing way. At the urging of his staff, the publisher decides to print it as The Boob’s Diary and sends Harold a generous advance. So, what we have is actually a literary Merton of the Movies.
The idea of Merton of the Movies was that a young rube goes to Hollywood thinking he will be a dramatic star but is unwittingly cast in knockabout comedies as his acting is hilarious. The original story was written by Harry Leon Wilson (who helped popularize the term “flapper”) initially published in 1919. It was adapted into a play and the play was turned into a movie that was released a few months after Girl Shy. Alas, that title is missing and presumed lost, though I have reviewed the both the Stuart Erwin and Red Skelton remakes.
Anyway, poor Harold is destined for the same treatment when he heads into the publisher’s office to see how his book has been received.
Harold Lloyd is a very popular silent comedian, you don’t need me to tell you that. But what I am curious about is the affection nearly every modern viewer has for this film. What is that secret sauce that makes it so beloved?
From the start, Lloyd’s Glass character was designed to be normal. While he was not the first comedian to reject the grotesque, he certainly was one of the most financially successful ones to do so. The Glass character varied slightly in temperament but remained at his core an average young fellow of the day. No mustaches or gimmicks, just enthusiasm and some physical stunts.
Lloyd was funny, of course, but even when he was, say, captured by flapper pirates, his characters tended to keep at least a toe in reality. Interestingly enough, Lloyd played a tailor in his very first film with the Glass character, Over the Fence, in which he tries to go on a date with Bebe Daniels using purloined baseball game tickets.
With Girl Shy, Lloyd deals with something that is still universally snickered at, a guilt-free target that we can all agree was ridiculous in the 1920s and remains just as ridiculous today. I refer, of course, to how-to guides designed to unravel the mysterious feminine mind. (Spoiler from a genuine woman: Women want good pockets.) For generations, there have been manuals written on how exactly to pick up women and what almost all of them have in common is unintended hilarity. We laugh at Lloyd’s fantasies about flappers and vamps because the assumption that there is a one-size-fits all approach to romance is inherently silly. This also fits in the the Expectation vs. Reality we have all experienced when following tutorials.
(A quick clarification: There are books and consultants who help people cultivate social skills that can be used to make them better dates. I am absolutely not referring to them. Rather, I am discussing the squicky books primarily aimed at men for the purpose of teaching them how to be, in 1920s parlance, lounge lizards and Lotharios with women as their prey. The key to their disturbing content is that women are treated as objects, prizes to be won or games that just need the correct cheat code. The moment you start dehumanizing someone, you deserve any ridicule you get. These things can be sinister. And I have had dudes attempt to explain to me, a women, that some women “need” an aggressive approach which freaked me out even more so, no, this is not up for debate.)
The Boob’s Diary would likely be a bestseller today, albeit probably with a different title. Bloggers, YouTubers and even major media outlets have certainly had their fun at the expense of clueless pickup tutorials. Frankly, the advice Harold gives (ignore them, insult them, neg them) is quite similar to what is still be bandied about as the golden secret for all would-be Casanovas when real, live women usually just find such behavior… weird.
Granted, Harold doesn’t hate women, he’s just nervous, which makes his character more sympathetic than many of these alleged “experts” on female behavior and, anyway, he changes his tune the moment he has a meaningful interaction with a nice young lady. Accomplished, I might add, by just being himself and not using any method other than good manners and a willingness to engage in dog smuggling. Girl Shy could be easily remade today without many changes. (I am not suggesting that it SHOULD be remade. Hold your horses there, Hollywood!)
Girl Shy still works today because it hits on modern themes while still maintaining the basic charm of a silent film rom-com. Lloyd and Ralston are a delightful couple—could they be anything else?—and clever direction and writing make this one a true classic. One of Lloyd’s best.
Where can I see it?
Girl Shy is available on DVD as part of the out of print New Line Harold Lloyd Collection. It features a fine score orchestral by Robert Israel and an alternative organ score.
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