reasons to love new york

The First Great New York City Chase Scene

Speedy, 1928. Photo: Harold Lloyd/YouTube

When Harold Lloyd set out to make 1928’s Speedy (which would turn out to be his final silent comedy), the Los Angeles–based comedian desperately wanted a change of scenery. So he planned an extended location shoot in New York City, an appropriate place for a story of speed and movement — the picture’s opening title cards describe New York as a city “where everybody is in such a hurry that they take Saturday’s bath on Friday so they can do Monday’s washing on Sunday.” During the shoot, which stretched from mid-August to mid-October 1927, the crew staged scenes in midtown, on Wall Street, on Coney Island, and at Yankee Stadium, where Lloyd, driving a taxi, drops off Babe Ruth for a big game.

The most significant undertaking was the film’s climactic chase sequence, in which Lloyd, driving the city’s last “horse car” taxi, barrels through town. It was the first great New York City chase scene, a proto–French Connection right down to the perilous stunts and close calls.

Lloyd pulled it off with a lot of help from the NYPD. Although he could shoot on the streets of Los Angeles without attracting much fuss — Lloyd was just another movie star out there — so few major productions were shot here at the time that he and his company attracted giant crowds (even when they attempted to shoot on the fly using natural light and hiding their camera in a laundry wagon). Hundreds of onlookers stood on corners and curbs as the horse car raced by, and real cops mixed with the actors in cop uniforms.

The dangerous stuff was left to Lloyd’s stuntman. And there was dangerous stuff — during a second-unit shoot near the Bowling Green train stop on Labor Day weekend, cameras captured the horse car unsuccessfully navigating a quick turn and crashing into the pillar base of an elevated track.

Lloyd and director Ted Wilde worked that accident into the film, adding a couple of new gags and reconfiguring the sequence from there. But they were unable to salvage any footage from what Variety called “an awful crash” on October 10. Five thousand onlookers watched two horses and a car slam into the uptown side of the Christopher Street IRT station, and though the stunt drivers were unharmed and the horses saved, the film crew departed the city less than a week later. They would fake what was left of the chase in the studio — where they could exert a bit more control.

Jason Bailey is the author of Fun City Cinema, an entire book about New York City movies.

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The First Great New York City Chase Scene