Why Worry? marks a major transition point in the life of its star, Harold Lloyd. In the wake of the success of his 1922 breakthrough feature Grandma’s Boy and its hit 1923 follow-up Safety Last, Lloyd had figured out the keys to his comic persona, a full decade after his entry into the motion-picture business. Lloyd retired his long-time leading lady, Mildred Davis, by marrying her during Why Worry?’s filming. Why Worry? was also his last film for Hal Roach Studios – Lloyd went independent afterward and became the archetypal entrepreneur, taking complete charge of his productions. He even lost one giant and gained another during production.
Lloyd embodied the can-do, go-getter spirit in real life as on screen. Lloyd was born in Burchard in southeast Nebraska, nearly 100 miles from the nearest provincial capital, Omaha – literally the back of beyond. From this, he worked assiduously and unstintingly, not even letting a crippling accident sideline him, until he was the most successful silent-era film comedian, more consistently popular than either Chaplin or Keaton.
In fact, he has none of their genius. He doesn’t peer into the gears of reality and tinker with them; he’s no outcast pressing his nose to the glass and commenting on society. Lloyd believes in the Way Things Are, and his films are affirmations of that belief. He doesn’t subvert the system, he surmounts it. As Gerald Mast, not a huge fan, states, “He is the American Dream of what a mediocre man can accomplish with a lot of hard work.”1
His career is an embodiment of that ethos. In 1953, he received an honorary Oscar for being a “master comedian and good citizen.” Lloyd was an expert manager – he hired the best people to work together to craft the product, relying on extensive test screenings and written feedback to tweak the end result until it worked smoothly and consistently for the broadest possible audience. On Why Worry?, Sam Taylor was his scripter, but two extra gag writers, Ted Wilde and Tim Whelan are credited, while the writing of the intertitles was handed to yet another. Lloyd’s films are unabashed team efforts.
As a result, Lloyd was immensely wealthy, a prominent Freemason, gave freely to many causes, and was one of the founders of Beverly Hills. Yet there was a shadow side to Lloyd. Beverly Hills excluded people of color and Jews; Lloyd was part of a “neighborhood improvement association” that litigated to enforce that covenant, unsuccessfully, in 1940. He was also an early 3-D photography enthusiast, taking nearly 300,000 exposures – many of them of naked and near-naked models, including Marilyn Monroe. Still waters run deep.
On the surface, though, Lloyd was engaging, personable, and wholesome as his screen persona. Why Worry? displays the cognitive dissonance between Lloyd the rags-to-riches, underdog hero and Lloyd the ugly American, that is only problematic in retrospect.
Why Worry?’s fairy tale of casual American superiority read as racist even at the time of filming. Initially set in a stereotypically sleepy Mexican hamlet, protests forced Lloyd to re-center his story on an imaginary island, after filming was completed on 22 June 1923.
In an October 1923 letter of apology to Mexican consul H.P. Kirby, Lloyd wrote, in an obviously annoyed tone, “I am now taking steps toward eliminating all reference to South America, and substituting therefore ‘The Isle of Paradiso, A Mythical Island, Somewhere, in Some Body of Water.’ Similar action will be taken to eliminate from all advertising matter any reference to South America.”2
The smug, cheerful assertion of inherent American superiority is the mainspring of the plot, in which a revolution seems to serve merely as an opportunity for personal growth, and as a path to romantic fulfillment. Here Lloyd is wealthy hypochondriac Harold van Pelham (a name redolent of “old money”), who seeks a complete rest in a sunny, quiet clime. He sails with manservant and nurse (the latter played by Jobyna Ralston, a spunkier kind of leading lady who would work with Lloyd to the end of the silent era). Of course, nurse secretly loves him, and deplores his obviously unnecessary self-coddling.
So how does a self-pitying weakling engage our sympathy? First, he’s dumped, obliviously, into the middle of a comic-opera revolution. Despite Lloyd’s efforts to de-Hispan-ize the setting of the ironically named “Paradiso,” the references to the laziness, excitability, and ‘primitive’ emotion of the ‘natives’ are as rife as the onscreen sombreros, burros, and guitars. These are cartoon straw men, in place only to be knocked about, beaten up, defeated, and set running or piled into inanimate heaps.
In fact, Lloyd’s only worthy opponent is another American. A title identifies him as Jim Blake, “an American renegade, who, to further his own financial interests, has lashed the riffraff of the Republic into an outlaw force – restless and eager to overthrow the government.” A superimposition shot literalises the phrase “in the palm of his hand” as he fantasises about controlling those around him. A note from the ominously named ‘WORLD’S ALLIED BANKERS” (say, who’s really in charge here?) warns Blake, “We can no longer tolerate your continued interference with our commercial interests in Paradiso. If you persist in this practice, we will send down an authorized representative to curb your activities.” Of course, Blake mistakes van Pelham for that operative.
For contemporary audiences, Lloyd’s gags may seem cruel and forced. His character sees only what he wants to see. He takes one rebel-bludgeoned man for an adroit dancer; another, beaten, collapses to the ground, hat in hand, and Lloyd cheerfully assumes he’s a beggar. He’s taken to jail, thinking it’s a hotel; he signs the list of those to be shot at dawn, mistaking it for the register. Everyone is impressed with a bravery that is really just cluelessness in the face of peril.
Even when Lloyd figures out what’s going on, he’s unfazed. “…tell them they’ll have to stop it immediately. I came down here for a rest.” In jail he enlists the aid of a friendly giant, Colosso (John Aasen), whom he frees of a loose tooth in classic Androcles-and-the-lion fashion, earning his slavelike devotion.3 The film’s best gag has Lloyd, rope looped around Colosso’s aching molar, climbing up his immense body like a mountaineer, straining without success. Lloyd’s giant is a kind of genie, doing Lloyd’s bidding and embodying the destructive impulses that seem inappropriate for Lloyd to manifest.
Of course, once Lloyd’s attention is engaged, all he has to do is implement the American ingeniousness that ‘solves’ everything (including using Colosso as an obliging mobile cannon platform). He defeats army and villain, gets the girl, and gets the hell out of Paradiso as fast as he can. Righteous indignation is therapy, leading to a little colonialist beatdown.
In Why Worry?, Lloyd shoulders the White Man’s Burden with alacrity. In politically-correct retrospect, it’s discomfiting, but audiences of the time by and large were not capable of being disturbed by its contradictions. They were more than happy with, as Dardis puts it, “… the joy of seeing a meek, mild-mannered man just like themselves transformed into a dynamo of furious unflagging energy and wild success.”4
Why Worry? (1923 U.S. 63 min)
Prod Co: Hal Roach Studios Prod: Hal Roach (uncredited) Dir: Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor Scr: Sam Taylor Gags: Ted Wilde, Tim Whelan Titles: H.M. Walker Phot: Walter Lundin Ed: Thomas J. Krizer Prod Des: not listed Cost: not listed Mus: Don Peake
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, John Aasen, Jim Mason, Wallace Howe, Leo White, Gaylord Lloyd, Mark Jones, Lee Phelps, William Gillespie, Sam Lufkin, Charles Stevenson
Annette D’Agostino Lloyd, The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland &Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004)
Jeffrey Vance and Suzanne Lloyd, Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian (New York, Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 2002)
William Cahn, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964)
Annette M. D’Agostino, Harold Lloyd: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Connecticut and London, Greenwood Press, 1994)
Adam Reilly, Harold Lloyd: The King of Daredevil Comedy (New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1977)
Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975)
- Gerald Mast, The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (2nd ed.) Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press, 1979), pg. 152. ↩
- Tom Dardis, Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock (New York, Viking Press, 1983), pg. 135. ↩
- Circus giant George Auger was signed to play Colosso, but died en route to filming. A nationwide search turned up the genuinely gentle, eight-foot-nine-and-a-half-inch-tall, 503-pound non-actor John Aasen from Minnesota, who does a fine job in the film. ↩
- Dardis, pg. 51. ↩