In the silent movie Never Weaken, Harold Lloyd plays a peculiar kind of protagonist. By turns duplicitous, suicidal, and cowardly, there is little about his character that endears him to the audience. He doesn’t confront his disastrous fate with the stoic optimism of a Keaton, the charming aplomb of a Chaplin, or even the boyish all-American spirit of…well, a Lloyd. All he does is survive until the end of the movie.
However, at the start, even if his methods are questionable, Lloyd has nothing but the best intentions. Determined to help his fiancée (a receptionist for an osteopath who will soon find herself unemployed if business doesn’t pick up), Lloyd takes to the streets, accompanied by an acrobat who has agreed to fake a series of spectacular, bone-shattering falls. After each staged accident, Lloyd administers violently bizarre twists and stretches to the limbs and torso of his accomplice. When the acrobat springs up and walks away good as new, Lloyd hands out the business cards of the osteopathic specialist, an impressed crowd of onlookers snapping them up.
Later in the film, convinced his fiancée no longer wants to marry him, Lloyd attempts to take his life. When poisoning, stabbing, gassing, and jumping out a window don’t work, he decides to shoot himself, tying one end of a length of string to the trigger of a gun–propped up on a desk and pointed at his chair–and attaching the other end to a doorknob. A blindfold tied over his eyes, he calls the janitor on the phone and tells him to come “Quick!”—unaware that a light bulb is teetering on the edge of a nearby bookcase. It tumbles to the floor, explodes, and Lloyd melodramatically grabs his chest. Simultaneously, a girder swings through the open French windows behind him, under his chair, and then out again, taking him with it.
Clueless, suspended above the city, Lloyd hears heavenly harp music (coming from a nearby window where a music teacher instructs a student) and removes his blindfold. He is amazed to find himself face to face with an angel (actually a winged statue on the side of a building), and for a moment, not only accepts his fate but seems to embrace it. Then he looks down and sees the street—thirty stories below. His life in imminent danger, all thought of suicide vanishes, and Lloyd clings to the girder for dear life.
Less than selfless and a little more than craven, Lloyd’s character still possesses the single ability required of all silent comedy heroes: He upsets the applecart of daily routine. To pull this off, bravery, strength, or wealth are not called for; a decision made and acted upon is all that’s needed. Nothing is more powerful In silent comedy. Results are immediate and multiple, reverberating through the surrounding world, creating a minefield of consequences that both the hero and those around him must negotiate.
Having become separated from his acrobatic cohort, Lloyd continues on alone with his well-intentioned campaign of mayhem. Sidling up behind a family waiting at a corner, he provokes a misunderstanding between a henpecked husband and his battleax of a mother-in-law that results in the walloping of the husband with an umbrella. Lloyd places a business card in the hand of the unconscious husband crumpled on the ground, then proceeds to a store, where he purchases two boxes of ACME soap flakes. He opens the boxes and, with one under each arm, pours the contents out behind him as he crosses in front of a horse-drawn street cleaner, an enormous barrel in the wagon spraying a wide arch of water after it.
People cross the street and hit the slippery slick, their feet flying out from under them. Men and women go down hard, landing in undignified and spectacular pratfalls. They attempt to get up, teeter, lose their footing, and go down again. Unconcerned, Lloyd makes his way through the chaos of falling bodies, casually handing out business cards. The sequence concludes in the once empty office of the osteopathic specialist—except now it is filled with dozens and dozens of clients.
In silent comedy, each situation is mined for every possible laugh before moving on to the next joke. An unintended byproduct of this gag-driven imperative is that ordinary situations are injected with a variety of possibilities, revealing a world that is more unpredictable, dangerous, and playful than most people are willing to acknowledge. This joke-driven logic also expresses itself in rapid-fire karmic justice. The relentless setup/payoff, setup/payoff rhythm creates a world of instant punishment and reward. Every action has a reaction. Bad actions are ultimately punished, good actions rewarded. Joke after joke drives this point home.
As comeuppance for all the pain he has caused, Lloyd ends up on the skeleton of a building under construction. Initially, only a fear of heights stands between him and safety, but he quickly realizes there is another, more dangerous problem: the seemingly fixed world of right angles and bolted steel is actually in constant, unpredictable flux. When he grabs a corner steel beam for support, it gives way—suspended from a crane—and swings out over the city, Lloyd dangling from it. Attempting to negotiate his slow, careful way around a vertical beam—hugging it the entire time—Lloyd is unaware that the horizontal girder he is about to step onto has been lifted up to the next level. Hot rivets fly through the air between workmen, stable planks teeter and fall, and even a simple ladder proves unreliable. At the same time Lloyd climbs down the ladder, two workmen above him pull it up, leaving him surprised and terrified, desperately clutching the last rung.
Despite questionable actions and a lack of courage, Harold Lloyd is clearly the hero in Never Weaken because he’s the one deciding on a course of action, meeting each new twist and turn with ingenuity, giving himself over to the spontaneous, but always thinking on his feet—adapting, reacting, and, no matter what happens, always moving forward.
Once back on solid ground, Lloyd is reunited with his fiancée, and their misunderstanding is cleared up. Although in a traditional narrative sense Lloyd hasn’t done anything to deserve this happy ending, by his ingenuity and insistence on persevering, by hanging in there until the arbitrary casino logic of the possible finally pays off, Lloyd beats the odds, and so he gets the girl.
Make no mistake about it, Never Weaken isn’t about anything but being funny. It has a single, burning question at its center: What is the maximum number of jokes that can be crammed into a forty-minute film? Still, like all good silent comedies, Never Weaken can’t help but reveal through its hero’s actions a world of unlimited surprises, possibilities, and laughter.