Obscure Films: “By The Sad Sea Waves” (1917)

There’s a number of silent comedy shorts that are lauded as mini-masterpieces today, shorts like The Immigrant (1917), One Week) (1920), and Cops (1922). The rhythm of the editing, the succinct storylines, the interplay between talented comedians–they’re not only a joy to watch but a joy to study as well. Uniquely creative in an already unique era of a film, the great silent comedies can “unfold like music,” as Roger Ebert once said of Buster Keaton’s work.

Aaaaand then there’s all the other silent comedies. The decidedly run-of-the-mill comedies. The rushed, low budget, frenetic comedies, churned out like sausages, as the old studio saying went. And the…err…kind of dumb silent comedies. All were legion, my friends. Legion.

You might say Ham and Bud were their gods.

Y’know, there’s nothing like spending an evening watching the gems of silent comedy and taking in each sparkling minute until you’re refreshing in mind and spirit. But sometimes…just sometimes…you’ve just spent a loooong winter taking advantage of the loooong evenings with lots of cinematic gem-viewing, and now it’s getting warm, and you’ve been working hard all day, and your mind and spirit is tired, and you just wanna watch something silly. Sometimes, you just need dumb, and that’s okay. Dumb can be good. Enter something like By The Sad Sea Waves (1917), which is named after a song, because it’s set at a beach and WHY NOT.

I’m probably being a little hard on it, because as dumb silent comedies go By The Sad Sea Waves is far from the realm of the nadir tier of silent comedy. (Depending on your specific diet of old comedies, this might make you scratch your head, but trust me.) And it stars Harold Lloyd, who is always awesome. But look, it’s just dumb enough, because that’s what we need sometimes.

And there’s lots of those trendy Edwardian stripes peaking in various shots!! You might not know it yet, but you need those too.

So By The Sad Sea Waves is a pretty darn run-of-the-mill seaside comedy, where everyone runs around in bathing suits and bops each other and falls in the ocean and fights over pretty girls. Because sometimes that’s all you need. It’s okay. And the energy level is just short of a caffeine overdose and the editing isn’t that far behind, and there’s angry guys with fake mustaches and bathing beauties in their bathing suits, and at one point everyone starts throttling each other…

…and you wonder how the actors practiced that without messing up their necks for real, and yes yes I know it would’ve been undercranked like crazy to get that effect, but still. Still!

At one point there’s a scene where a random natty gent walks into the frame and I guess tries to hit on the main girl, and she and the fake mustache guy laugh at him and after that two seconds of interaction with her he decides to end it all. And why wouldn’t he just go and repeatedly dunk his head into the ocean as the surf splashes around his knees? What, you want him to act more effectively than that? This is a comedy short–sheesh!

And we get to see a lot of a young, cheery, handsome Harold Lloyd getting a one-up on various characters, only acting like Chaplin and Arbuckle a little bit. Familiar as we are with The Kid Brother (1927) or Safety Last! (1923) today, it’s easy to forget that Lloyd had a wildly prolific career in shorts long before his feature films. And like loads of comedians did at the time, he imitated Charlie’s style quite a bit. By The Sad Sea Waves is from his Hal Roach period, released at a time when he was trying to be less Chaplinesque and find a persona of his own. As we can see, he’s got the glasses, he’s got that perky boy-next-door attitude, he’s definitely on his way! Riiiight after he imitates Arbuckle’s “savoring the kiss” moment.

Err, I tried to capture his “kiss savoring” moment but
the screenshots were weird.

Oh yes, the plot. So the girls at the beach are keen on the swarthy lifeguard, because even though he doesn’t have good looks or charm he’s still a lifeguard. Lloyd wants to chase girls too and cheekily dresses up as a lifeguard, but then he has to save someone for real, which doesn’t go well. Then he’s at the Slushem Bathhouse where people can shower and change, and he switches the sign on a shower door to help someone out, but it just causes chaos. He hits on pretty Bebe Daniels and Snub Pollard is there too in his Extreme Eyebrow phase. And after lots more chaos Harold and Bebe take off in a kind of charming miniature train that shuttles people up and down the beach areas on miniature tracks, and all I can think of is “WHY DON’T WE HAVE THOSE ANYMORE.”

JEALOUS.

Snub and Bebe were regulars in Lloyd’s Roach films, game for just about any wacky scenario. As was Lloyd himself, of course. Here’s a fun fact: the glasses were supposedly Hal Roach’s idea, because he thought Lloyd was “too handsome” to be a decent comedian without some kind of distinguishing feature. Gee, I’m sure that particular criticism really got Lloyd’s goat. The poor man.

So yes, that’s By The Sad Sea Waves, and after taking in its silliness and getting used to its crazy rhythm, I’m starting to think I might be wrong. It’s actually kind of splendid, in its own archaic way, and I think I’m for it. Because it’s a seaside comedy with Edwardian bathing suits and fake mustaches and stripes, and Harold Lloyd cavorts around the beach with that sunny grin of his, and people smack each other and fall into the ocean, and sometimes that’s all you need.

This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring blogathon, Fun in the Sun! I think this was a pretty apt post, don’t you? 🙂

16 thoughts on “Obscure Films: “By The Sad Sea Waves” (1917)

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I’ve only seen Harold Lloyd in one production — Safety Last — and may never get the chance to see this short, but it sure was fun to read about! Really good stuff.

    • Thank you, much appreciated! I highly recommend watching random obscure silent films when you’re trying to fall asleep, you can get a lot of them under your belt that way. 😀

  2. Excellent post, Lea! 🙂 If someone likes dumb comedies, I am their friend and companion without any further explanation! 😉

    -Brittany (& the rest of the Silent Cinema School team)

  3. Chaplin’s ‘Kid Auto Races at Venice’ is my idea of dumb. There’s no story. Just Chaplin walking back and forth across the street, in and out of the picture frame. Doing nothing. The repetition builds LAUGHS. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that all he needed to make a comedy was a park, a policeman and a pretty girl. ‘Auto Races’ is proof that he didn’t need a park, policeman or pretty girl. He didn’t need anything to make us laugh. This silly little film is one I never tire of watching.

    • That film is THE BEST, totally agree! Part of its wonder is knowing that Charlie would be the most famous comedian on the planet in about a year, and no one in the crowd had any idea…!

  4. Dumb – but so charming. Even your photos had me laughing. Harold just can’t help but be funny. I’ve not seen this one, but have seen him in a few others with Bebe and they were adorable together.

  5. So funny. And absolutely agree with you on the wonderful effects of dumb comedies! This reason why he was in demand made me laugh aloud, btw: “…even though he doesn’t have good looks or charm he’s still a lifeguard.”

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