His Royal Slyness (1920) A Silent Film Review

Harold Lloyd plays an encyclopedia salesman who, as it turns out, is the spitting image of the Prince of Razzamatazz. The prince is eager to get out of an engagement to the princess of Thermosa and hires the brash Lloyd to take his place back home. Surely nothing could go wrong…

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Fit for a king…

Royal lookalikes have been a fixture in fiction for centuries, with The Prince and the Pauper and The Man in the Iron Mask being notable examples. This was likely a case of art imitating life. Consider the rather shallow gene pool of European royalty, the decided lack of branches in the family tree, a fair number of royal bastards and Bob’s your uncle. For a real-world example, consider the strong resemblance between Tsar Nicholas II and King George V, one of whom or both was the other’s own grandpa, I can’t be bothered to sort it out.

It’s the famous Harold Lloyd! Or is it?

However, the exact type of royal lookalike in His Royal Slyness was inspired by the popular book The Prisoner of Zenda, which was adapted a few times during the silent era. In that novel, an English descendent of one of those royal bastards discovers that he looks just like the uncrowned king of Ruritania. The book’s wild success led to copycats and spoofs in abundance.

His Royal Slyness was made when Harold Lloyd had been playing his “Glass” character for several years after its debut in Over the Fence (1917) and while he was working with his second regular leading lady and future wife, Mildred Davis. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character, earlier examples of the Glass character were harsher and rougher before Lloyd smoothed the edges and perfected his all-American, go-getter persona.

Selling encyclopedias to the prince.

In His Royal Slyness, Lloyd is all assertiveness as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman determined to close some deals in a swanky apartment complex. He accidentally walks in on some royal intrigue. The Prince of Razzamatazz (Gaylord Lloyd, Harold’s brother) cannot live without his beloved vamp but he has been ordered home. Princess Florelle of Thermosa (Mildred Davis) must choose between the prince and his rival, the Prince of Roquefort (Snub Pollard). But suppose, just suppose the American lookalike went in his place…

And so Harold is off to Thermosa! But there’s trouble brewing! Some Bolsheviks are riling up the commoners and the constant drinking and gambling at the place have annoyed them fiercely. In fact, Harold barely escapes with his life when they mistake him for the real prince. On his way, he also manages to win the favor of Florelle, who has been galivanting amongst the commoners.

Meeting the king and queen.

Unfortunately, the Prince of Razzamatazz is also on his way to Thermosa. He proposed to the vamp but informed her that he was losing his allowance and they would be poor but happy. That went over like a lead balloon and so he has fled America.

Will Florelle choose Harold? Will those angry Bolsheviks storm the palace? See His Royal Slyness to find out!

Digging the revolutionary life.

I suppose I need to issue a spoiler alert because one of my favorite things in comedy is when they employ the old “and they just went with it!” plot twist at the end. Like in Some Like it Hot when Joe E. Brown says “Nobody’s perfect.” Or, for a silent example, the end of Hands Up! when the central love triangle is resolved by the characters all deciding that bigamy is awesome.

Well, in His Royal Slyness, Harold Lloyd wins the day by deciding that he will just join the Bolsheviks, overthrow the kingdom and rule himself. This kind of twist is especially surprising if you’re used to classic talkie era films, what with their reddest of red scare censorship. And there was a Red Scare going on when His Royal Slyness was released, triggered by the Russian Revolution and anarchist bombings in the United States.

Finding the princess.

In fact, His Royal Slyness can be seen as an inverted version of Hawthorne of the U.S.A. (1919), in which Wallace Reid played a brash American who ended up in a tiny European country after breaking the bank at Monte Carlo. That film also featured anarchist/communist/”we don’t know but they have funny beards” villains but Reid opted to beat them rather than join them.

However, anarchism had been a subject of comedy for years before His Royal Slyness was made. Further, revolutions against corrupt nobility and a little light pinkness to garnish were often featured sympathetically in mainstream American films. A great many movie moguls had come to North America in order to escape the tsar’s pogroms and they were not unsympathetic to battles against their erstwhile tormenter. (Lewis J. Selznick sarcastically offered to give Tsar Nicholas II a job in the movies if he was unable to secure other work.)

You say you want a revolution?

Of course, His Royal Slyness was made under the Hal Roach umbrella (Roach’s parents were Irish and Swiss) but romanticizing or at least being friendly to revolutionaries was not limited to those with direct Russian experience. Cecil B. DeMille cast William Boyd as a sexy Red Army fellow with a perpetually open shirt in The Volga Boatman.

So, we now understand the political context of His Royal Slyness. How are the gags? Quite good, actually. While Lloyd’s softer take on his film persona resulted in some of his most popular pictures, his snotty and unlikable take on the character has a car wreck appeal all its own. It’s fun to see how low he will go in order to win the day.

Side by side.

And, of course, I must praise the clever casting of Gaylord Lloyd as the prince. Dual roles were quite popular at the time, courtesy of split screen special effects, but the simple casting of a near-lookalike sibling is appealing in its purity. Comedian Lupino Lane employed his brother, Wallace Lupino, as a double in his own comedies and, for a more serious and modern example, Linda Hamilton’s identical twin sister allowed for “effects” shots that were achieved simply and easily.

Mildred Davis was in the very dawn of her days as Lloyd’s leading lady and before she retired from the screen to marry him (something her predecessor, Bebe Daniels, politely refused). Davis has very few gags of her own in this picture and Lloyd and regular sidekick Snub Pollard are responsible for most of the laughs.

Rivals.

His Royal Slyness is a great deal of fun and a prime example of a more aggressive Glass character. The end plot twist is quite a bit of fun and this is easily one of my favorite Harold Lloyd shorts.

Where can I see it?

Watch it for free courtesy of Harold Lloyd’s official YouTube channel. If you want it on disc, it’s part of the Harold Lloyd Collection Volume One.

☙❦❧

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