Never Weaken, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and produced by Hal Roach, is a classic depiction of “ideal manhood” in the thriving business scene of 1920’s Los Angeles. The American silent film was released on October 22, 1921, signifying the end of Harold Lloyd’s career in short films before dedicating solely to feature-length production. He had the privilege of working with screenwriter H.M. Walker, and filming with his beloved co-star and wife Mildred Davis, along with Roy Brooks, Mark Jones, and Charles Stevenson.
Prior to the approval of the 19th amendment, women in the U.S. were subjected to minimal employment opportunities that “saw fit” to their domestic and household capabilities. Fortunately, an upsurge of working women dawned in the U.S. due to the sentiments of self-worth and assumed respect by the community that partnered with their right to vote. As a result, men and women were head-to-head in the workplace, or rather mouth-to-mouth, leaving room for erotic encounters as they passed one another in the halls. The opening inter-title for the short film highlighted this reality:
“In a certain city
Each crowded skyscraper
Holds a budding romance
It’s the one and only thing
The janitor can’t smash.”
Shortly after, the film opens with a scene of sweethearts Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis fawning over each other from their adjacent office windows. The introduction of females to the previously “male-consumed” business world triggered such a romance, yet the film does not fail to remind its audience of the inescapable hierarchy that existed (and arguably, still exists) between people, even lovers, due to gender.
The test of masculinity was at full speed with female secretaries greeting businessmen at every door. As second-tier citizens in the gender hierarchy, women were not viewed as equivalent to men in their proficiency in the business and medical fields, illustrated by Davis’s role as an osteopathic specialist’s assistant, responsible for administrative duties performed isolated from her boss. With news of potentially being fired due to a decrease in patient visits, Davis calls for her beau who courageously steps in to save her from losing her job. Declaring it his mission and duty for the day, Lloyd befriends a Barnum & Bailey acrobat in the office next door, who proves to be a useful tool in coming alongside him to collect future patients for his beloved. They take it to the streets of Los Angeles to perform several exaggerated episodes, luring in the public with entertaining trickery and performances. The circus theme in the film publicly legitimizes the previously hidden and ostracized talents represented by the “circus folk,” and introduces them into mainstream society as effective skills in the emerging business scene of the 1920’s.
The depiction of Davis as a “damsel in distress” discredits the upsurge of independence experienced by women during this time and belittles them into their traditional roles as “less capable” and simply “less than” their male counterparts. In reality, women in the Roaring 20’s were empowered to take control of their own lives and “rejected strict Victorian gender roles by wearing eloquent makeup, smoking and drinking, driving automobiles, and flouting sexual norms,” taking full advantage of this new period characterized by independence and discovering one’s true identity. Rather than allowing Davis to represent the existing women’s movement and take control of her predicament, the filmmaker uses the scene as an opportunity to flaunt Lloyd’s masculinity, which would otherwise be jeopardized if Davis expressed her aptitude as a woman by providing her own means of survival. Furthermore, he is revealing that “male heroism” is an integral piece of American culture, despite current and future efforts to eradicate it from society.
Analogous to the Bowery in 19th century New York, “where the possibilities of equality between the sexes existed but was never achieved, owing to the permanent nature of the unjust historical society that haunted its streets,” the halls and elevators of Los Angeles skyscrapers reeked of the same discrimination in the early 1920’s. City of Women, written by Christine Stansell, illustrates the dilemma women faced in the Bowery, endangered by previous and oppressive cultural values in the midst of striving for their liberation in contemporary society. Mimicking this east-coast youth culture, Newmeyer reinforces the fading traditional values of masculinity by using popular cinema to ingrain gender roles and expectations into the subconscious of movie-goers. He rejects the current reality of emerging feminism by displaying a woman’s submissive role as a necessity for obtaining personal stability in her workplace. Considering Lloyd’s short films were among the most popular and influential of the time, the message that masculine identity critically depends on successful valiance in business at the expense of female representation, was told to the entirety of the public, further manipulating American culture into the segmented and biased system that it is today.
Never Weaken. Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer. Prod. Hal Roach. Screenplay by H. M. Walker. Perf. Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis. N.d. Kanopy. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <http://sdsu.kanopystreaming.com.libproxy.sdsu.edu/video/never-weaken-0>.
“Never Weaken (1921).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0012499/>.
Rosenberg, Jordan. “Essay Topic- The Roaring Twenties.” HACK It! N.p., 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <https://hackintohistory.org/2015/03/19/essay-topic-the-roaring-twenties/>.
Sahyoun, Julie. “The Bodies of the Bowery.” Where’s My Culture, Dude? N.p., 23 Jan. 2017. Web. 10 Feb. 2017. <https://wheresmyculturedude.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/the-bodies-of-the-bowery/>.
Stansell, Christine. “Single Women, The Bowery.” City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789 – 1860. Urbana, Ill.: U of Illinois, 1987. 83-101. Print.