The Mystery Horse of Harold Lloyd’s SPEEDY

Harold Lloyd's SPEEDY

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ust one of the many wonders of silent film is that in every frame, a precious look back at a disappeared place and time is revealed before us. Locked therein are windows to the past. But sometimes, if you look closely enough, mysteries are discovered.

In September 2015, I recorded an audio commentary track for the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray release of Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, Speedy (1928). My good friend Bruce Goldstein of New York’s Film Forum asked me to join him for the venture, which I happily agreed. In preparation, I looked very, very closely at the film. Having seen it on video, on TCM, and at various film festivals, it is easily my favorite of all of Lloyd’s films. It has the energy and verve that is typical Lloyd, but more importantly, it is an extraordinary time capsule look at New York in the late 1920s.

For those not familiar with Speedy, Harold Lloyd plays Harold “Speedy” Swift, a good-natured, but slightly aimless New Yorker who can’t keep a job. He eventually lands the job of helping to save the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar, or “horse-car”, which is operated by his sweetheart’s grandfather. The key part of Speedy that will be addressed here is a climactic wild chase through the city streets of New York City. Harold must deliver the last horse-car to a certain location by a pivotal deadline, or else the struggling enterprise defaults to the ownership of a big business tycoon. Harold begins the race against time with one horse, an unnamed steed that appears throughout the film as a valued member of the business. (While there is no evidence that the horse has a name in the final film, for the sake of clarity, I will refer to it as “Dolly.”)

In the midst of the run, Dolly grows tired, so Harold stops at a blacksmith to give her a rest and new shoes. But once Dolly is uncoupled, the now-horseless vehicle is bumped several blocks down the road by a trolley. Leaving Dolly at the blacksmith, Harold gives chase, commandeers the horse-car once again, but now has no means of propulsion. Harold eventually steals a team of two other horses, couples it to the stranded horse-car, and continues the race at double speed. Weaving in and around traffic, Harold drives across the city with reckless abandon, dodging traffic, parades, pedestrians, and obstacles put up by the businessman’s goons. All is going well for Harold until the horse-car collides with the girder of an elevated subway platform, crushing one of the wheels. It appears the chase is over, until Harold engineers a manhole cover into a makeshift wheel. The race to the finish continues to a satisfyingly happy ending.

This sequence is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, not the least of which, is the fact that much of it was filmed on location in New York.  Shot in October 1927, Harold and his crew had to navigate actual traffic, crowds of pedestrians, unpredictable weather, and collisions with anything you may find on a New York City thoroughfare. The production had the cooperation of the city government and the police, but there was only so much that could be done in order to maintain a hermetically sealed set. Thus, you can spot throngs of on-lookers in several shots. And secondly, the final chase is very much a standard Harold Lloyd thrill ending, with just enough variation from similar race-to-the-finish sequences in Girl Shy and For Heaven’s Sake. Harold puts himself in seemingly mortal danger, with physical dexterity, bravery, near-precision driving, vehicular rigging, expert editing and cinematography and well-chosen stunt doubles.

It is impossible to identify the stunt driver for this sequence. While Lloyd claimed to perform all of his own stunts—and he did indeed perform many of his harrowing gags in films like Safety Last, Girl Shy and Hot Water—he was too much of a businessman to take needless chances, not when his company was depending on his health. Lloyd already knew the realities of being sidelined from an injury, after losing part of his right hand in a botched photo shoot ten years earlier. So in most of his feature films, Harold did employ the services of stunt doubles; Richard Talmadge and Harvey Parry are both known today to have doubled Harold at various stages in his career. However, none of them drove the horse-car in Speedy. As indicated in the commentary track, I could only take my best guess as to the identity of the stunt driver. Whoever he was, the stuntman did his job well–he made the star appear to take all the risks on screen, but remained in total anonymity.

But finally, here is the crux of the matter.

As I tried to identify the stunt driver, I advanced through the sequence frame by frame over the course of several days. In doing so, I noticed something I had never seen before. This discovery wasn’t just spotting a gaffe or an unheralded cameo (Babe Ruth wasn’t the only Yankee to make an appearance in Speedy…).   It was seeing visual evidence of a large, load-bearing mammal where there shouldn’t be one. In certain shots where the stuntman is driving the horse-car with the two horses leading, you can see INSIDE the car…a white horse.

There are a number of shots in which this phantom horse appears, but the most obvious instance is when the horse-car advances down Broadway past Bowling Green, then makes a right onto Battery Place. As the horse-car speeds by on screen from right to left, you can clearly see the animal inside the car.  Then, as the driver careens underneath the elevated train tracks, if you go frame-by-frame, just as the horse-car makes its infamous unscheduled collision, you can again spot the four-legged passenger in the back.

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Now, that may seem like a trivial detail, but Speedy is too important a film for it to remain a footnote. It’s not just Lloyd’s last silent feature, but it’s a shining example of his full prowess as a filmmaker and entertainer. As such, Speedy has been studied for decades, and has been the subject of scores of articles, books, documentaries and audio commentaries. In the research that I’ve conducted, so far I have not seen one mention of this phantom horse (other than a recent article in the New York Post about the Criterion release).  In fact, Goldstein and I both discovered this horse independently of one another while each preparing for the commentary track.  It was Bruce’s editor, the indispensable William Hohauser, who pointed it out to him in the editing room.  So it took a very careful, deliberate eye to even see it, but truly, it is too odd of a thing not to have an explanation.

There is no apparent reason in the narrative why the horse is there. Nevertheless, here is my theory that I shared on the Criterion Collection commentary track: Could that mystery horse in the back actually be the first horse, Dolly? Could there have been scenes that showed Harold going back to the blacksmith to pick up Dolly, so that she could take part in the final victory? Harold and his writers already established how important she was to the family business, with scenes of Harold gently tending to Dolly. Additionally, at the close of the Coney Island trip earlier in the film, Harold shows a soft spot for animals, when he refuses to leave behind a stray dog.  He also makes sure that same dog is aboard the horse-car for the finale.  The sight of a hurried Harold trying to coax Dolly into the back of the car, with time running out, could have resulted in some funny gags.
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Alas, there is no paper trail of any such deleted scene to back up these hunches. However, we do know that there were cut scenes from Speedy, as you can see on Criterion’s visual essay of deleted scenes from the film, narrated by Goldstein. (You’ll also want to see Bruce’s stupendous short documentary, In the Footsteps of Speedy). Assuming for the moment that this theory is accurate, a few other questions pop up. Why was Dolly excised from the sequence? And was it a real horse? My guess is that when the big accident happened—the horse-car crashing into the supports of the elevated train—Lloyd couldn’t figure out a way to explain how the horse inside wasn’t injured in the rather brutal crash, to say nothing of the team pulling the vehicle. Goldstein thinks those horses may have been injured, which, judging just by the severity of the collision, I’m inclined to agree. Regardless, Lloyd had to cut Dolly’s wild ride, leaving behind a few shots were it is easy to miss the horse if you’re not looking for it.

Given his highly efficient and practical means as a filmmaker, it is unlikely that Harold Lloyd would have put a real horse in the carriage for these scenes. If ballast was needed to keep the horse-car from tipping over, as has been hypothesized elsewhere, then the filmmakers would have instead used other means, such as sandbags. It makes little sense to employ a real horse, as their high center of gravity would have provided little to no help in maintaining balance for the speeding horse-car. Indeed, in creating scenes of near-misses between the horse-car and other vehicles, the stunt driver had to command full control, without dealing with the shifting weight of a 1,000 pound animal. Staging these stunt scenes required the production team to tie up busy Manhattan traffic, so time was of the essence. It would have been too heavy a burden on the production schedule to manage a live animal, not when they had to get their shots by interrupting city streets. Additionally, it would have stood as foolish to needlessly risk the safety of the driver and a real horse, when some kind of facsimile—whether a fake or stuffed horse—would do just fine. And indeed, if you look very, very closely at the phantom horse, you can see that it never really moves, maintaining an eerie stare slightly to its right for the entire length of screen time. Finally, technical director William MacDonald was an expert at devising and engineering vehicles for the safe and spectacular presentation of Lloyd’s stunts, as he did in Girl Shy, For Heaven’s Sake, and others. He was more than capable in making sure that the stunt vehicle didn’t capsize without being saddled with a flesh and blood equine load.

When I shared my theory with Kevin Brownlow, the world’s foremost authority on silent film my theory, he wrote back in an email to me in the weeks before the commentary track recording, “What a remarkable piece of cinematic archaeology! I have seen that film on every kind of screen from a l6mm viewer to a huge screen in a public cinema. I have never noticed that ‘extra’ horse. But your theory stands up (as firmly as the horse). I’m sure you’re right. I’m simply bowled over by your revelation.”

In closing, I also have to wonder if perhaps this mystery horse answers the question as to why Lloyd felt the need to use the awkward “Williams Process”, better known as rear-screen projection. According to historians, Lloyd realized during the editing process in California that he was missing some crucial insert shots of him in medium close-up driving the horse-car. Instead of taking the cost-prohibitive steps of going back to New York, Lloyd opted instead to use the Williams technology, then in its infancy. Lloyd was a meticulous, well-prepared filmmaker. It seems hard to imagine that he would have left New York without having every shot needed in the can. It is unlikely they would have resorted to using the truly distracting Williams process, unless perhaps there were shots of Lloyd with that phantom horse that would have necessitated it. Or it could indeed be that they opted to use that process, simply because they needed shots of Harold driving the team himself, which would have been difficult and dangerous to do on location in NYC.

Regardless of what really happened, this we do know for sure about Speedy: there is a previously uncredited participant in one of the most exciting and expertly shot sequences in silent movie history. And I ain’t talkin’ about an iron horse.

3 Comments

  1. Your theory about Harold bringing Dolly the horse along for the final victory ride really makes sense. I can visualize Harold, a friend to all of the local old-timers, and kind to animals, putting Dolly in the trolley as part of the story. The unexpected crash was so startling and cinematic that they had to use it – but that meant, logically, cutting the scenes of Dolly boarding the car. Simply amazing. It’s interesting too that they even bothered to put a prop horse in the car for those shots, when they could have more easily left the car empty. Considering that before you and Bruce, no one ever noticed the horse IN the car, it’s likely few people would have noticed the car lacking a horse if they had cheated a bit. But Harold never cut corners – another example of the care Harold lavished on his films. What a great story – thank you so much!

  2. I like this article and your theory. I don’t think Richard Talmadge did much stunt work for Lloyd and Harvey Peary worked on the early Lloyd talkie FEET FIRST. The name that is worth mentioning is Robert A. “Red” Golden. He served as a Lloyd assistant director as well as his stunt double from 1921-1927. I’ve tried myself to uncover who doubled for Lloyd on SPEEDY–no luck. However, I’ve documented Golden in various places and I think his name ought to be mentioned in any discussion of Lloyd’s use of stunt doubles. Bravo!

  3. For what it’s worth, the novelization of SPEEDY released concurrently with the film—in which author Russell Holman dates the foreword at February 11, 1928—has Harold make the entire final horse-car chase with “Dolly,” here called Nellie, pulling the horse-car alone. Whether this reflects author’s license or an early plan for the film, I’ll leave to more seasoned Lloyd researchers than myself.

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