Harold Lloyd’s “Number, Please?” (1920) is one of those films where what is in the background and not the focus of attention is just as fascinating as the action occurring in the foreground.
This is in part because of Harold Lloyd’s typical “modern” feel to his films. His characters, the costumes, the slang, all are pitched firmly in the 1920s. There are no timeless allegories for Mr. Lloyd as what might be presented in a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton film. Lloyd is all Jazz Age and because of this, we are treated to a view of that era that is genuine and natural. It is one thing to see a film made today of that era, or a documentary, but it is quite another experience to witness a time period so completely unselfconsciously presented.
This short has a simple plot. Lloyd, and his rival, Roy, played by Roy Brooks, must be the first to ask permission of the mother of The Girl, played by Lloyd regular and future wife, Mildred Davis, for The Girl to go on a hot air balloon ride. The first one who gets permission from Mother, gets the girl.
What makes the film interesting is not so much the set up of gags (though one running sequence of Lloyd coming into possession of a stolen women’s purse and being unable, despite repeated attempts, to get rid of it, is very clever), but rather the set and the times. The action takes place at Ocean Park in Venice. It opens with Harold, dejected at being left by his girl, moping as he rides the old wooden Blarney roller coaster. We see the park amusements in the background of his adventures, the advertising signs and the attractions. They are quite eye catching, and it is a delightful game to look for detail.
Several amusement piers had been constructed in the early part of the 20th century around Venice, and the Pickering Pier, where most of the action in this film seems to take place, was built in 1913, and bought by Mr. Pickering in 1919. It was renovated and had a grand re-opening in June of 1920. This film was released in December 1920, so we are seeing a new and extremely popular venue for tourists and day-trippers in that period, practically while the paint was still drying.
Some of the gags in the film include Mr. Lloyd’s getting smacked in the face by a toupee on the roller coaster, which has flown off the head of the fellow in front of him. When Lloyd is given charge of The Girl’s dog, “General Pershing” (this is 1920, after all, and we were still flush off the ebullient conclusion of World War I), he ties the poor dog to a carousel. Of course, the carousel starts to turn, and the dog endures what no film crew would dare do to a dog today. However, after being dragged around and around by his leash, the dog eventually hops onto the carousel and is saved by his own ingenuity from being strangled.
The title comes from Harold’s deciding to beat Roy’s time by reaching The Girl’s mother through that newfangled contraption, the telephone, instead of running over to her house, as Roy does. The public phone booths are extremely busy and he must endure several frustrating failed attempts to reach one. These are the days before self-service dialing, and he must tell the operator the number to connect.
Phone calls no longer cost a nickel and cell phones make phone booths obsolete, but when it comes to customer service, nothing has changed since 1920. The operators gossip and pay no attention to their customers, and when they finally address poor Mr. Lloyd’s needs, they are curt, and they give him several wrong numbers.
We see signs for Lucky Strike cigarettes in the background, for the Pickering Pier, for Ocean Park (which would be demolished in 1975 after a fire in 1974), for the Denver Hotel. Sammy Brooks, a young African-American actor who played several roles for Lloyd in the 1920s, has a funny gag when Lloyd, trying to hide from the police, puts the child on his shoulders and puts his own coat and hat on him. Harold walks away from the cops, looking like a very tall black man with very long legs, very short arms, and a hat too big for him. In a way, it copies the very funny sequence shown earlier where Harold is looking at himself in the funhouse mirrors and we are shown several out-of-proportion images of him.
Eventually, Sammy gets knocked off by an awning, and Harold must keep running.
For more on the history of Ocean Park amusement piers, have a look at this fun website.