Directed by Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer
Harold Lloyd Corporation, Distributed by Pathe Exhange
Cast: Harold Lloyd (Hubby), Jobyna Ralston (Wifey), Josephine Crowell (her mother), Charles Stevenson (her big brother, Charley), Mickey McBan (her little brother, Little Bobby). Andy De Villa (traffic cop), Edgar Dearing (motorcycle cop), man on the trolley (Pat Harmon)
As he is leaving work, a young husband receives a call from his wife to pick up a "few things" - which becomes a rather long list. Once the shopping is completed, he is having a difficult time holding all of the packages - constantly dropping them, and picking them up. He is given a ticket for a turkey raffle as a result of his purchases and surprisingly wins the live turkey. He faces many challenges trying to carry the packages and a live turkey home on the streetcar.
He is anxious and excited because his new car is being delivered that evening, and he wants to surprise his wife. However, upon arriving, he finds his mother-in-law, his lazy adult brother-in-law, Charley, and his bratty little brother-in-law, Little Bobby there, too. When the car arrives, he hopes that he and the wife will be able to take a ride together - alone. Unfortunately, when the car is delivered, the entire family immediately gets in, ready for an evening drive. The trip turns disastrous with, first, a bent fender, and finally the car totally demolished by a streetcar.
Back home that evening, dejected, he talks to his neighbor about his problems. The neighbor convinces him to take a "drink," and Hubby becomes intoxicated. When, at dinner, his prohibitionist mother-in-law suspects he has been imbibing, he douses a napkin in chloroform. After using the napkin for sneezes caused when Hubby blows pepper her way, she passes out, but then he reads the label that an overdose could be fatal. Now he is concerned that she may die. Picking up on bits and pieces of the conversation between Wifey and Charley in the next room, he misunderstands what he has heard to mean the mother-in-law has passed away. Terrified at what he has done, he becomes frantic when Mother starts sleepwalking - Hubby thinks she has returned from the dead to haunt him. Noise, bumps, running from room to room, and a variety of other mishaps lead everyone in the house to believe its haunted. Hubby finally catches on to the misunderstanding and takes advantage of the situation to don a sheet and scare the in-laws out of the house. Finally, there is peace and quiet for the couple.
In 1924, 'Hot Water' was well-received by audiences and given high marks by critics. The film's earnings were comparable to Lloyd's other features at that time, actually earning slightly more than his previous feature, "Girl Shy." Oddly enough, historians today seem to have little regard for this film, essentially deeming it to be three disconnected two-reelers strung together. Biographer Tom Dardis said, "It's all very lively, but the film as a whole leaves many with the unsatisfied feeling they have sat through an anthology." (1) Film critic and biographer Richard Schickel was harsher in his analysis, noting, "'Hot Water has scarcely more plot than a revue . . . (It) is one of Lloyd's most carelessly structured movies." (2) Only four years after it was made, Lloyd himself seemed to dismiss the movie with only a brief mention in his autobiography. "'Hot Water' ran only five reels, and, coming as it did between two longer, better films, it is little remembered," said Lloyd. (3)
So why would historians today brush this comedy aside when audiences and critics at the time of its release apparently loved the film? It may be explained by perspective. When "Hot Water" hit the theatres, some of Lloyd's best work was yet to come - "The Freshman" (1925), "The Kid Brother" (1927) and "Speedy" (1928), among others. From today's perspective, we have Lloyd's entire body of work (minus some early shorts) to view. Audiences in the 1920's wanted gags, physical humor and broad laughter. Today, we prefer a subtler humor that is secondary to the narrative. "Hot Water" is just what audiences wanted in 1924 - contemporary reviews and box office receipts support that. Given a choice of Lloyd's features such as "Grandma's Boy" (1921), "Girl Shy" (1924), "The Freshman" (1925), "The Kid Brother" (1927) or "Speedy" (1928), it is understandable "Hot Water" may suffer by comparison. However, if it is viewed in comparison with the other comedies we have available for viewing from that time, it stands as a top-notch offering, filled with laughs, and very entertaining.
We know the reviews for "Hot Water" were good and that it made a healthy profit for Lloyd, but how did it really compare with other comedies released around the same time? In "An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-28," author Richard Koszarski does an excellent job of explaining why it is difficult to determine the most popular or successful films of the silent era - records that were not kept or do not survive, a film's profits don't necessarily coincide with seats sold when one studio may have instant access to large city picture palaces and another studio's distribution system may be oriented to lesser-paying "country" venues, etc. However, Koszarski does quote an unpublished study by James Mark Purcell in which he "attempted to correlate the available figures and combine them with such other data as exhibitors' reports appearing in trade papers." From this he created an approximate ranking of the most popular films of 1922-1927. In 1924, Lloyd's two films, "Hot Water" and "Girl Shy," tied for fourth behind "The Iron Horse," "The Sea Hawk," and "The Thief of Bagdad" - all three large budget, epic pictures. Another costly epic, D.W. Grffith's "America," was in fifth place - rather distinguished company for a film that gets dismissed by critics and historians so easily. (4)
The film opens with Harold, who is the best man, running behind the groom to get to the church on time. He is unable to understand why any man would be in a hurry to get to his own wedding and vows he will never fall "for a pair of soft-boiled eyes." Suddenly, he bumps into a beautiful girl (Jobyna Ralston), knocking her down on the sidewalk. Helping her up, the camera gives us a very close close-up of just Joby's eyes - which are, indeed, beautiful - and Harold immediately melts as he looks into these "soft boiled" eyes.
We immediately go to the next scene which shows Hubby (Harold) and Wifey (Jobyna) on the phone - her giving him a list of items to pick up at the store before coming home from work. This sudden switch does leave us wanting - wanting to see the "love at first sight" romance develop. The opening scene promises romance, and we are straightaway thrown into the challenges of married life. A little disappointing for the viewer and a one-time decision by Lloyd to have the main character win the girl at the beginning of the film - the only Lloyd feature in which this occurs.
After completing his shopping, Hubby is constantly dropping some of his package overload, picking one up, then dropping two - and on and on. This is not the most original idea to get laughs, but, true to the genius of Harold Lloyd (and his gag writers), he did add an ingenious twist which makes all the difference. He is given a raffle ticket by the grocer that wins him a live turkey. Now, Hubby is loaded with more packages than he can carry AND a live turkey! The real humor, though, comes as he tries to control the turkey on the trolley - upsetting the other riders to the point that he is thrown off. Granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd and co-author Jeffrey Vance praised this sequence in their book, Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. " . . . although one of his lesser silent features, it nevertheless contains sequences that stand with his very best work. The turkey on the streetcar, in particular, is brilliant in its construction and execution and is one of Harold's finest studies of the comedy of embarrassment." (5)
Of course, these challenges are minor compared to what he has waiting for him at home - the in-laws - an interfering mother-in-law, a lazy adult brother-in-law, Charley, and a bratty kid brother-in-law, Little Bobby. Hoping to have a special evening at home with his wife with a special surprise for her - a brand new car that is being delivered - he is obviously disappointed to find the in-laws there. Undeterred, though, he is excited when the car arrives, and decides to make the best of it - even when everyone jumps into the car to go for a ride.
The excursion is marked by bad luck and one mishap after another. When he decides to make the car "fly," he is chased by a cop for speeding. However, when the cop gets alongside, Hubby quickly darts in behind the cop's motorcycle and tailgates him closely so the cop must keep going or get run over. Hubby continues to intimidate the cop until he forces him to run his motorcycle into a lake - then Hubby takes off!
A misunderstanding at an intersection earns him a mild berating from the traffic cop, but when Mother puts her two cents worth into the conversation, the cop decides to issue Hubby a ticket - which then turns into two tickets! Trying to deal with the confusion created by the in-laws and, at the same time, backing into his place in the busy intersection results in a minor collision that crumples his back fender. Out of the car and arguing with the cop, Hubby is unaware that the car is beginning to roll down a steep hill. One would think three adults in the car could use a brake, but, instead, they are waving frantically for Hubby to come rescue them.
Back at the wheel, he finds himself in front of a racing fire wagon pulled by a team of galloping horses. Hubby is swerving wildly to get out of the way and ends up on the sidewalk. What he doesn't realize is that he is directly over a sidewalk elevator. When it rises up from below the street level, the elevator lifts the car and its occupants into the air. A couple of mischievous kids are seated on box by the controlling lever, and Hubby motions for them to let him down. Rather than lowering the car slowly, they jerk the lever back, and the car drops like a rock jarring the occupants. Then, when Hubby backs out, he backs right into the path of a streetcar, and the brand new automobile is now totally demolished.
The sequence is hilarious and, as one would expect from Lloyd, has some ingenious gags. It may a little difficult, though, in the end, not to feel depressed. Not only do we see Hubby sitting on the fallen running board dejected, Wifey, Mother and Little Bobby are in tears, and Charley is more concerned about his broken watch than anything else that has happened. The ride home (pulled by a wrecker) is depressing, too, as everyone is both sullen and silent.
Back home, Hubby visits his neighbor for advice. The neighbor offers Hubby, who is NOT used to alcohol, a "drink," and, surprisingly, Hubby empties the entire flask.
At dinner, to keep his prohibitionist mother-in-law from discovering his intoxication, he puts chloroform on her napkin, and, as he wished, she passes out. Wifey cries, "I can't wake her!" It is then that Hubby reads the label on the chloroform that says an overdose could be fatal. He begins to panic. Did he put too much chloroform on the napkin? Is she dead? Wifey and Charley take her to the bedroom. Outside, Hubby overhears only bits and pieces from behind the closed door. Little Bobby asks Charley to take him to the movies. By the time Hubby puts his ear to the door, all hears is Charley say, "It's too late." More panic. Then he hears Wifey scream (she has seen a mouse). Hubby paces the floor - is he a murderer? Next he hears Wifey cry out, "Mama! Come back - come back!" (Mother is leaving the room, and Wifey calls her to come back because of the mouse). Now Hubby is beside himself with fear. What has he done? He picks up a newspaper with the headline "Woman's Slayer Hangs Today." Clutching the paper, he winces. Then he hears Charley on the phone in the other room. "He's a brother-in-law of mine, and he didn't mean to do it. Do you think you can fix it up?" (Unbeknownst to Hubby, he's calling a policeman friend to "fix" the traffic ticket.) Then, "It can't be done, eh? Well, he'll have to take the consequences."
The pace of the film suddenly goes into high gear. Hubby answers the door and sees a policeman (who was only there about the "junked" car parked in front of the house). Hubby slams the door and runs to hide. The real fun begins when he accidentally runs into the sleeping mother-in-law's room and hides under the bed. After a few moments, he decides to slip out of the room very slowly and cautiously. He doesn't realize it, but the Mother has risen up from the bed sleepwalking again. They go all the way down the stairs with Hubby never once realizing she's behind him - although he feels something is following him. In true Lloyd style and precision, he turns quickly, but it's just at the moment she passes behind him, and he doesn't see her. They go in different directions, Hubby still feeling that someone is after him. Finally he opens a door, and, there ahead, moving eerily toward him is the sleepwalking mother-in-law - hand outstretched. Hubby thinks she has come back from the dead to haunt him and runs. One particularly good gag has him under a long seat in the hallway. A mouse crawls into a white glove, and the glove begins to move. When Hubby sees it, it appears that a hand is crawling across the floor!
Still trying to elude capture and a ghostly mother-in-law, he runs into a closet, not realizing Mother just went in there before him. When he realizes he's shut himself in the closet with her, he falls out onto the floor at the foot of the stairs, grasping the railing in terror as Mother, still sleepwalking, approaches him. His shaking causes a blanket (afghan, throw, coverlet?) that was at the top of the stairs to slide down the rail and fall on top of him. Once again thinking something has "gotten" him, he jumps up to run, and a dog leash and collar get caught up in his foot and Mother's. She falls to the floor and wakes up just in time to see this ghostly figure flailing wildly about (Hubby is trying his best to shake the cover off). Thinking she has seen a ghost, she runs, Hubby runs in the kitchen knocking down a shelf of cans causing a raucous clatter, and the mouse in the glove makes it appearance in front of Mother. She runs to grab her coat and hat just as Charley, Little Bobby and Wifey walk in. "Ghosts, I tell you - ghosts! The house is haunted!" Hubby, hiding in a large chest, peeks out and sees this and has an idea to finish off the evening - he rises up from the chest covered in a sheet. All three in-laws flee down the street and into the darkness. "Home, Sweet Home" at last as Hubby and Wifey embrace.
The final minutes of this film leave the viewer breathless. The gags comes rapid-fire, and, admittedly, remind one of the two-reeler days, but in a much more polished fashion. Sure, Hubby's hair standing on end when he sees the "ghostly" mother-in-law sleepwalking for the first time is the same gag used in Lloyd's two-reeler "Haunted Spooks" (1920), but it seems only appropriate here and is just as funny as the first time it was used. Because it's a feature film, character development is better, too, giving more depth and enjoyment to the gags.
The supporting cast must be given proper credit. The always adorable Jobyna Ralston was a perfect match for Lloyd and shone in every co-starring appearance with the comedian. She is no less charming in "Hot Water" as the adoring wife who dotes on her husband. Josephine Crowell, who is best known for her days with D.W. Griffith (she was the Little Colonel's mother in "The Birth of a Nation" (1915)), is outstanding in this role. Her facial expressions alone are a source of much of the film's humor, and her interference in the car and butting in when dealing with the traffic cop are not obnoxious, as one would think, but just plain funny. Suzanne Lloyd and Jeffrey Vance wrote, "Although the characterizations in 'Hot Water' are one-dimensional, they are exceptionally well-acted; the most memorable performance is Josephine Crowell as the mother-in-law . . ." (5) The New York Times added, "Josephine Crowell is splendid as the mother-in-law." (6) In "The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia," Annette recounted, "After she (Crowell) saw the first preview of the picture at the Strand Theatre in Pasadena, CA., she said of her bespectacled co-star, 'I have worked with nearly every great star in motion pictures. But, I must say honestly and with the fullest conviction that Harold Lloyd is the finest actor I know on the screen. His work in this picture is superb. His facial expressions represent pantomimic art at its finest.'" (7)
Micky McBan as Little Bobby, the bratty little brother-in-law, and Charles Stevenson as Charley, the big, lazy brother-in-law, both turn in commendable performances - and they are given just enough screen time to add sufficiently to the hilarity without being overbearing.
It goes without saying that "Hot Water" was a departure from what Lloyd had done since "A Sailor-Made Man" in in 1921. He obviously intended it to be predominantly a "gag" picture as opposed to a "story" picture. Variety's review gives us some insight into what may have been the reason for his decision. The publication said, "The current vehicle being so obviously a series of gags is said to have resulted from 'Girl Shy,' Lloyd's preceding effort, being overboard with story and as a result of crying about the time consumed by around 8,000 feet that film contained. The theatre group wanted Lloyd, but evidently not in eight reels, for it cuts into the program too much. That being the general consensus of opinion, with the releasing organization acquiescing as well, the idea crystallized with the studio unit, and 'Hot Water' is the outcome. The film is now down to around 5,000 feet, with it not being impossible that more footage will feel the scissors. The middle passages look particularly susceptible to chopping." (9)
As noted earlier, the film was successful at the box office earning $1,730,324, a bit more than his previous release, "Girl Shy," which earned $1,729,636. (1) Critics liked it, too. Harrison's Reports said, "A very good farce-comedy but not one which is in the same class with 'Girl Shy'." (8) Variety commented, "Lloyd's latest is strictly a gag picture that starts out like a whirlwind, drifts into a calm and then comes back to a yell finish through 'scare stuff.' At a hide-away showing, there was no questioning the final result. They laughed plenty, often and loud." (9) Typically one of the toughest of critics, The New York Times reviewer said, "Hilarity is rife in Harold Lloyd's new picture . . . Although this production is not as subtle as 'Girl Shy,' it has a fund of original and ludicrous ideas, which as they are worked out defy one to keep a straight face even when the action drops to nonsensical depths. Humor is cleverly coupled with the absurd, and as the later may appear while one is still bubbling with merriment at the former, it is apt to inspire a fresh explosion of mirth, because of the utterly ridiculous situations in which Mr. Lloyd as a young husband becomes involved. Hence this hilarious contribution probably will cause as much mental sunshine as 'Girl Shy'." (6)
It is unfortunate that many writers have chosen to find fault with "Hot Water." It is exactly what it was intended to be - an hour of good fun, great laughs and minimal drama. Public screenings of the film have shown it to be a very entertaining film that audiences today find extremely funny. Biographer Adam Reilly said, "Actually the film is successful, but in an atypical fashion," adding that the film is "very entertaining on first viewing. Subsequent screenings and analysis show some major flaws in construction, but a general audience will overlook these amid the laughter that the film successfully evokes." (10) Lloyd and Vance called it "an unpretentious effort," but added, "'Hot Water,' nevertheless, still has the power to make audiences roar with laughter." (5)
Annette relates several interesting tidbits about the film in "The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia." For example, two scenes that were shot were cut after previews. One involved Harold laying his packages atop a mailbox and sitting on the curb, with the turkey, to tie his shoelaces. What he doesn't realize is the postman has come along and taken his packages thinking they are mail. Another cut sequence had him considering killing the turkey and trying to convince the turkey it was a good idea. Neither scene elicited the hoped-for response at previews. The Butterfly Six used in the film was actually a 1921 Chevrolet, Butterfly Six being a fictional name made up for the picture. The turkey's name was Genevieve, and, on Lloyd's orders, was "spared the ax" and spent the rest of her days in the animal corral at Hollywood Studios. The car Lloyd walks through with the two women inside to reach the streetcar was his personal vehicle - and there are more interesting bits of trivia to be found in her book. (7)
Bottom line - don't listen to the naysayers. If you haven't seen this film, sit down, get yourself comfortable with a drink and a snack, and pop in the DVD. You'll laugh for an hour and have a smile on your face for at least as long afterward.
(1) Dardis, Tom. Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock. Penguin Books, 1983.
(2) Schickel, Richard. Harold Lloyd: The Shape of Laughter. New York Graphic Society, 1971.
(3) Lloyd, Harold. An American Comedy. Longmans, Green & Co., 1928.
(4) Koszarski, Richard. An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-28. University of California Press, 1990.
(5) Lloyd, Suzanne, and Jeffrey Vance. Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002.
(6) The New York Times, October 27, 1924.
(7) Lloyd, Annette D'Agostino. The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia. McFarland, 2004.
(8) Harrison's Reports, November 1, 1924.
(9) Variety, September 25, 1924.
(10) Reilly, Adam. Harold Lloyd: The King of Daredevil
Comedy. MacMillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1977.
Copyright 2011 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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