Riot Against the Machine: Review of Speedy (1928)

Speedy 1

By Heather Babcock, 2019

A few years ago I was waiting in line at my neighborhood independent dollar store; an elderly woman was in front of me and as the cashier (a young man in his twenties) was handing over her change, he wished her a good day. “I’m 85 years old,” the woman replied. “It’s never a good day for me, all my friends are dead.” The young man reached over and held out his hand to her. “Listen,” he said kindly, “I’m your friend. If you ever feel like you need a friend, just come down here and see me.”

I have thought about this interaction often, as I see more and more self-checkout machines taking the place of human beings. I think about how – when it comes to technology – it is not just about what we gain but also about what we lose, in this case the simple pleasure of human interaction. I thought about this again as I watched Speedy (1928), a Harold Lloyd silent comedy about a habitually unemployed young man named Speedy who makes it his mission to save New York City’s last horse-drawn trolley-car, owned and driven by his girlfriend’s grandfather, Pop.

The delightful comedy follows Speedy as he loses job after job. Pop explains the problem: “Speedy gets plenty of jobs – but he’ll never keep one while his mind is full of baseball.”  Indeed, Speedy’s only requirement of his employers is “that their store be within phoning distance of the Yankee stadium.” After his baseball-on-the-brains obsession causes him to be sacked from his job as a soda jerk, Speedy shrugs. “Aw Jane,” he says to his flapper girlfriend, played by the fetching Ann Christy, “Why worry about losing a job on a Saturday when we can go to Coney Island on Sunday? Besides you know I always get a job on Monday.”  This in turn leads to a dazzling extended sequence at Coney Island’s Luna Park. I’ve never visited Coney Island and have no idea what it’s like today but the fun park is featured prominently in plenty of 1920’s movies, notably Clara Bow’s It (1927) and Lonesome (1928) (the latter boasts one of the most beautiful early two-strip Technicolor scenes I have ever seen). Wearing heels and a swell dress, flapper Jane doesn’t care if you can see her underwear as she joins Speedy on the “Human Roulette Wheel”, the “Double Dip Slide” and the “Revolving Drum”, giving modern viewers a lesson in the fabulousness of 1920’s women’s undergarments.

Adding to Speedy’s time-capsule appeal is a hilarious cameo by Babe Ruth, whom the title card announces as “the idol of American boys – little and big.” Hailing a cab to take him to Yankee Stadium, the Babe has the misfortune of getting picked up by Speedy, in his latest stint as a cab driver. Beside himself with excitement, super fan Speedy gushes: “Even when you strike out, you miss ‘em close!” Sweating in the back seat as Speedy narrowly avoids crashing into oncoming traffic, the Babe replies “I don’t miss ‘em half as close as you do!”

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It isn’t all fun and games for Speedy though: upon finding out that a streetcar magnate is trying to railroad Pops into giving up his horse-drawn trolley tracks, Speedy organizes their blue collar friends and the film climaxes with a literal class war between the “little guys” and the evil streetcar corporation.

Watching Speedy through the lens of 2019 is interesting: the film was released in April of 1928 – just over a year and a half before the Wall Street Crash of 1929. You can almost hear the ticking of the clock: in just a few years, during the height of the Great Depression, Speedy’s carelessness towards employment would seem more ludicrous than charming. Yet even if Speedy might have seemed dated to Depression-era audiences, its central themes are completely in touch with today: like Speedy and Pop, many of us are feeling the anxiety associated with modern technology. With more and more human jobs being replaced by machines (“Office jobs are the next to go in the AI revolution”, the Financial Times recently predicted), a war between the robots and the humans is looking less like a Will Smith action movie and more like reality. Smart phones, Alexa, automated checkouts, self-driving cars: it’s amazing how blasé – and even gleeful – human beings are participating in their own extinction.

Yet Speedy shows that these anxieties surrounding technology have been around since at least the turn of the twentieth century.

In my novel Filthy Sugar (to be released in May 2020 with Inanna Publications), my protagonist Wanda’s daddy is a milkman who “doesn’t trust the automobile” so “when the other milkmen traded in their horses for trucks, Daddy doggedly held on to his beast; a gentle white and grey mare named Sadie”:

“Ya can’t trust anything that doesn’t need ya,” Daddy explained to me one day, as he filled Sadie’s feedbag with oats. “This girl needs me as much as I need her. Now what mess of steel and rubber is goin’ ta beat that?”

I think Speedy and Pops would agree with him.

Heather Babcock, 2019

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