Friday 2 September 2011

Ask Father (1919)

Returning now to the early silent escapades of Harold Lloyd. By 1919, Lloyd was an established and popular star of the era, and still working with friend and producer Hal Roach. Two years since his last Lonesome Luke role, the character that made him a star, he was still working consistently, with the length of his films becoming longer as his creative talents, as well as the public’s desire for more, continued to grow. In Ask Father, Lloyd draws laughs from something as old fashioned as silent comedy itself – asking a would-be bride’s father for permission to marry.

A young man (Harold Lloyd) wants to ask a man (Wallace Howe) for his daughter’s hand in marriage. However, this man is a very important businessman, with a two-week waiting list for an appointment. Anyone without one is literally thrown back out. The young man must find a way into the office to ask his question without getting himself killed in the process.

The last time we looked at a Harold Lloyd film, Among Those Present, I mentioned that it was notable partly from the vaguely Chaplin-esque barbed satire of the upper classes. With Ask Father, there isn’t really any of that, resting on the more simple principle of a guy going to great pains to meet with his beloved’s father. There’s nothing really in the way of subplot, either. It’s a pretty straightforward shot.

Lloyd fully launches himself into the repeated pratfalls of the film. A repeated gag of him being launched back into the hallway develops something of a relationship with the office switchboard operator, played by the wonderful Bebe Daniels. Since she doesn’t want to see him hurt, she constantly throws down her cushion for him to land on. There is also a glimpse into the stunt work typical of the time. At one point, when Lloyd finds himself unceremoniously ejected from the building for the umpteenth time, he gets back in by simply climbing the wall. There are no visible safety precautions taken, either. He just looks up, grabs onto the brickwork and very quickly makes his way up and back inside. It’s rather impressive.

Alongside the dogged determination of Lloyd to complete his task, what’s also great are the measures the boss man takes not to be disturbed. Not only does he have a small army of office workers to keep people away from his office, he has built contraptions into his office should anyone get that far. There is a conveyor belt built into the floor, so all his assistant need do is open the door and the intruder will be ejected very quickly. This leads to a very funny moment when Lloyd tries to ask his question whilst keeping pace on the running belt, desperately trying to stay ahead of the hulking office worker waiting at the end. And that’s not all, since the boss man also has a trapdoor in front of his desk, giving unwanted visitors a more direct exit from the building. I swear this guy must have been the original model for Mr. Burns in The Simpsons. He even has his own much put-upon personal assistant, played by Harry ‘Snub’ Pollard, an Australian comedian who was not far away from having his own successful career at this point.

What is interesting to note from the film is a slight mean streak on show, which is something that actually does crop up in quite a lot of silent pictures. There’s a shorter office worker that I felt kind of bad for, since he does seem to get it a little more than the others. Further to this, as Lloyd becomes more frustrated in his attempts to see the boss man, he resorts to more crazy tactics to get past the many office workers in his way, including just punching them out, stealing two guns and blasting away at them, and dressing in full knight’s armour and beating them with a club. In fairness, they started it, but it’s a hell of a progression. Also, the ending of the film shows Lloyd to be a somewhat fickle character.

Still, Ask Father is very funny, with the conveyor belt bit and his brief time dressed as a knight offering moments of genuine laughter. Even though the film has no credited director, it’s got a great quick pace, lots of energy and is a nice showcase for Lloyd, Daniels and Harry Pollard. It’s really got a lot to offer in a pretty brisk 13 minutes.

Oh, and apologies for the use of a screenshot at the top there. Couldn't find either an individual cover or poster for the film itself.

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