How Silent Film Comedian Harold Lloyd Influenced 'Star Wars' (And Jar Jar Binks)

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired or help us better understand George Lucas' iconic universe. In this edition: Girl Shy.)

Among film nerds, Harold Lloyd is a household name. Saying his name instantly evokes images of the bespectacled actor dangling from a clock or in other improbable and impossibly dangerous situations. Made in 1924, Girl Shy was Harold Lloyd's first production independent of Hal Roach and he wanted it to focus less on the stunts he'd been known for and more for his character work. That doesn't mean Girl Shy doesn't have its own thrilling stunts, as the climax of the film might have been the most exciting sequence Lloyd ever accomplished in his career, but the character work leading up to that sequence was the most well-developed Lloyd had pulled off. He plays a young tailor's apprentice who wants to be an author. He's also impossibly shy around girls and has a terrible stutter when he's nervous. Think about that: Harold Lloyd is able to portray a verbal stutter in a silent film from 1924. He's clumsy and shy, but that doesn't stop him from falling in love and the climax plays out like an early version of The Graduate, with Lloyd's character breaking up a wedding in order to reunite with the love of his life.

Though during his time making films through the '20s and '30s, Lloyd was spoken of in the same breath as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, it was Lloyd himself that prevented his legacy from flowering as much as it should have. He controlled the rights to all of his films and very rarely allowed them to be played for a variety of reasons. Now, almost a hundred years after the peak of his popularity, Lloyd is taking his more rightful place in the history of cinema.

But how does that connect to Star Wars?

The Star Wars Connection

When George Lucas set out to make Star Wars, the influence of classic cinema was never far from his mind. "Star Wars films are basically silent movies," he once commented and every one of his movies had that influence from the silent era. One could point to Metropolis as the chief silent film influence on Star Wars, giving us a look at everything ranging from C-3PO to Coruscant, but there are so many others, too. Girl Shy is definitely among them, and The Phantom Menace owes it some of its best bits.

In fact, one can draw a straight line between the poor boy that Harold Lloyd plays in Girl Shy and Jar Jar Binks. Their journeys are similar in that they're both sort of clumsy oafs that have a hard time fitting in. Jar Jar moves like the silent film star, too. Virtually everything Lucas does is informed by some idea from some part of stories that have come before and there's a strain of Lloyd's Girl Shy character running all through Jar Jar. By the end of their respective films, they both find their strength and overcome much of their clumsiness to be successful. For Harold, it's to get the girl. For Jar Jar, it's to save the Naboo.

And they both do it in the most ridiculous ways.

Shot for Shot

During the major climax of Girl Shy, Harold Lloyd is racing across town to stop a wedding. The comedy is absurdist slapstick, pairing clumsiness with feats of impossible derring-do. Instances of happenstance and coincidence build up through the chase and lead Lloyd to add elements of danger to what should be a simple instance of getting from point A to point B. At one point, he's mistaken for a bootlegger and the police chase him, shooting at him all the while. To evade them, he is hooked by a tree branch that deposits him on a horse that brings him back into the city. There, he manages to find himself atop a runaway, electric trolley.

On the top of that trolley car was that electric pole that tied it to the power lines and Lloyd found himself dangling from one spot to another on it until he was deposited in another car. At another point, Lloyd takes over a stagecoach and is forced to fend off the driver of said coach with nothing but his clumsiness. The intercutting between the wedding and the chase was revolutionary in 1924, but Lucas perfected intercutting sequence to an art in The Phantom Menace, bringing no less than four distinct situations to bear simultaneously. This breathless level of slapstick in a tense and exciting sequence is an exact mirror of Jar Jar's role in the Battle of Naboo with many of the same shots repeated verbatim.

There's a moment where Lloyd is trying to climb up the back of a fire truck, but his only purchase is the fire hose. He pulls and pulls but ends up just falling right off the back with the fire hose falling along with him. Jar Jar does the same thing as he climbs up onto the back of one of the Gungan carts and lets loose a store of oversized boomas. The trolley situation is repeated shot for shot, even at the exact same angle, with Jar Jar dangling from the barrel of one of the Trade Federation's Armored Assault Tanks. At another point, Jar Jar commandeers control of one of these runaway tanks in much the same fashion as Harold Lloyd dealing with the stage coach and Jar Jar dispatches the driver in a similarly clumsy fashion.

The Genius of Lucas

Everyone says The Phantom Menace is the most kid-friendly of the Star Wars films and it's hard to argue. It has the most slapstick comedy in it, it has the youngest central characters, and it is the one with the most clowning, thanks to Jar Jar. When you look at the sort of father George Lucas must have been, his kids would have likely been raised on these sorts of slapsticky silent films. Taking a character created to be that lovable but clumsy clown for the kids and putting him through the paces of classic silent film routines like those from Girl Shy make a lot of sense. This isn't the only one, either. There are bits from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin peppered in throughout the film. Even the Three Stooges get a nod during the podrace.

I can attest to the fact that, as a film nerd father, my kids see that direct line between silent films and Jar Jar Binks and his role in The Phantom Menace. I'm not saying you or your kid needs to be a film scholar to enjoy the opening installment of the Skywalker saga, but I am saying it certainly makes an already great experience richer.

Girl Shy

Though Girl Shy isn't as perfect a romantic comedy as Chaplin's City Lights or as famous as Lloyd's most well-known film, Safety Last, it's a charming picture on its own with a lot of inventive work in the storytelling and character work. The stunts are breathtaking, particularly that trolley sequence. It's worth your time as a cineaste to give it a watch if you've never seen it. And by watching it, my hope is that it will deepen your understanding and care for The Phantom Menace.

Girl Shy is currently released through The Criterion Collection. It was streaming on the soon-to-be-defunct Filmstruck and, presumably, will come back on Criterion's new dedicated channel sometime next year.