Never Weaken (1921)

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  • directed by Fred C. Newmeyer
  • starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis
  • When he hears that his girl is marrying another, Harold decides to commit suicide and spends the bulk of the film in thrilling, failed attempts.

Never Weaken was Harold Lloyd’s final short before making the move to features and it was a film that saw him firmly settling into his nice-natured everyman character and also mastering the vertigo-inducing stuntwork that would earn him one of the top spots in comedy history.

The thrill-based comedy genre wasn’t Lloyd’s playground alone as his contemporary Buster Keaton also put his life and health on the line for a laugh on the regular. Chaplin much less so since his comedy could come from so many other places, but it is interesting to look at how each performer treats these risky stunts in relation to narrative. Are they death-defying acts with the added enrichment of story and character or are they insular, attracting laughs the same way someone falling in a puddle does? In a 1923 interview with Malcolm H. Oettinger, Keaton said, “Gags are natural or mechanical. Both get laughs but the natural gag is the one we lay awake nights trying to dream of.” That’s the reason One Week is by far my favorite short comedy from this era, because it effortlessly arrives at hundreds of jokes all from the same small kernel of a set-up.

The final act of Never Weaken sees Lloyd desperately trying to find balance and stability on a bare-bones skyscraper construction site full of moving parts, a direct precursor to the iconic clock-dangling scene in Safety Last!. The stunt, though exciting, funny, and effectively filmed, existed outside of the main story to a point where his character’s main motivation was no longer to win the girl or help save her job, but to survive the ordeal. Though it comes out of nowhere in terms of the story he is telling, I will say that part of the reason it works is that Lloyd puts in the work to develop such a silly and innocent persona only to then have him dangle for his life hundreds of feet over Manhattan. That juxtaposition of the ultimate nerd as blockbuster action star is something that I love about this film and his work in general.

I was also struck by just how dark the action was in the first two sequences. Never Weaken begins with Harold trying to help his girl save her job as an Osteopath’s assistant by drumming up business for her floundering office. He does this by hitting the streets and intentionally injuring passersby in a series of humorous ways before handing them the doctor’s business card. When he returns to the office and misreads her talking to her brother about marriage, then comes the ultimate in dark humor, a series of failed and funny suicide attempts. Fingering a loose button on his coat causes him to knock over a glass of poison, a typo on his suicide note gives him pause, he thinks twice about stabbing himself after accidentally pricking his finger on the blade, and on and on until the sound of a light bulb hitting the ground makes him think he’d actually been shot. The depth, the darkness, and the white-knuckle action stuff are made infinitely more rich and funny by having them happen to this horn-rimmed spectacled guy that Lloyd became on film.

Depending on the day of the week you can find me championing one of the three—Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton—in favor of the others. Growing up, my Mother would always say, “Don’t compare!,” but in this case I love to because I clearly notice all three performers constantly circling the same core all from different directions. While I’m of the opinion that Lloyd doesn’t have the onscreen presence of the others and his filmography doesn’t add up quality-wise, he does have the somewhat substantial edge of relatability on his side.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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