Harold Lloyd was one of the “Big 3” comedy stars of the Silent Era, right up there with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in popularity. I’ve viewed and enjoyed comic gems like SAFETY LAST and THE FRESHMAN, and some of his hilarious shorts. His bespectacled, energetic character was wildly popular in the Roaring Twenties, but with the advent of sound and The Great Depression, audiences turned away from Harold’s brand of comedy. Recently, I watched 1936’s THE MILKY WAY and wondered why they did, because Harold Lloyd was just as funny as ever in it, and the film is just as good as any screwball comedy of the era.
Harold plays Burleigh Sullivan, a milquetoast milkman constantly in hot water for failing to meet his quotas. When a pair of drunken ruffians try to hit on his sister, meek Burleigh is forced to come to her defense. A fight breaks out, and Burleigh emerges from the pile victorious. The fight hits the papers because it seems Burleigh has knocked out the world’s middleweight champion! In reality, the milkman never touched him… he’s just a good ducker, and the champ’s friend did the slugging (seems Burleigh was picked on by bullies in his schooldays, and learned how to dodge a punch).
The champ’s manager, shifty “Honest” Gabby Sloan, tries to persuade Burleigh to get in the ring, but timid Burleigh declines. When Burleigh’s beloved milk wagon horse Agnes falls ill, the milkman changes his mind, needing money for the sick nag. What Burleigh doesn’t realize is Sloan and his gang plan on setting him up with a series of pugs taking dives so they can clean up at the box office for the big matchup between Burleigh and champ Speed McFarlane.
It’s all pretty silly, but serves as a showcase for Lloyd’s comedic gifts. His physical agility is put to good use, he has a fine voice that fits his personality, and I really don’t understand why he wasn’t able to make the successful transition to talkies. After one more starring vehicle, 1938’s PROFESSOR BEWARE, Lloyd was off the screen until teaming with director Preston Sturges for THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (1947), a sequel to Lloyd’s silent hit THE FRESHMAN.
Lloyd is surrounded by a solid supporting cast, led by Adolphe Menjou as the scheming promoter Gabby. Gravel voiced Lionel Stander is dimwitted henchman Spider, William Gargan the chump of a champ, and Verree Teasdale (Mrs. Menjou offscreen) Gabby’s wisecracking moll. Helen Mack (star of SON OF KONG) plays sister Mae, Dorothy Wilson is Burleigh’s girl Polly (they “meet cute” when Harold needs a phone to call a doctor for his horse at 3AM), and Marjorie Gateson is a scream as society matron Mrs. Winthrop Lemoyne (who Harold gives a ducking lesson to in another funny scene). Charles Lane plays a reporter, Murry Alper a cabbie, and if you look real close, you’ll spot Anthony Quinn making his film debut as a fight spectator.
Leo McCarey was an old pro when it came to directing comedy. McCarey got his start at Hal Roach studios, working with the likes of Charlie Chase and Laurel & Hardy. When talkies arrived, he was the go-to guy for the top comedians of the day: The Marx Brothers (DUCK SOUP ), W.C. Fields, Burns & Allen, Mae West. McCarey won two Oscars in his career, for 1937’s screwball hit THE AWFUL TRUTH and the sentimental 1944 GOING MY WAY. Many of you are probably familiar with Harold Lloyd’s silent classics, but don’t take his talkies for granted. If they’re anything like THE MILKY WAY, they’ll be worth watching.