Harold Swift (Harold Lloyd) is known as Speedy because of his quick wits and actions, though they do mean he has trouble holding down a job. His girlfriend is Jane Dillon (Ann Christy), who is the granddaughter of Pop (Ben Woodruff), the man who runs the last surviving horse-drawn tram in New York City; Harold would like to get married, but Jane declines when she feels she has to see her grandfather settled and financially secure, no matter that Harold would be happy for him to move in with them. But the future is uncertain when a business contingent are trying to persuade the old man to sell his tram to them: they will pay him compensation, but what will happen to his livelihood? Can Speedy help there?
This was Lloyd's last silent movie, and his last huge hit as the sound era was not one he adapted to well. He was still innovative, but his first talkie was poorly retooled from a silent and that might have put audiences off; they showed up to hear the star's voice, but otherwise he was relegated to another era as with too many silent stars, since the public wanted something new and Lloyd and his contemporaries were considered old hat once the nineteen-thirties arrived. If it was any consolation, not only had he made an absolute fortune that saw him comfortably through his retirement, but Speedy was one of his biggest hits, so at least he left the silents on a high of sorts.
The plot was simple, essentially an excuse to hang a bunch of gags around, and the development of the thread that saw Pop's business threatened did not really come to fruition till the last act which offered a look at the way action movies would grow to find their feet: get a vehicle and drive it at top velocity, then allow the audience to marvel at the stunts that ensued. Of course, in this case it was that rickety tram that was the centre of attention rather than a sports car, speedboat or jet plane, but that lent the chase an old world charm that many fans of pre-sound era movies their attraction, and it did not hurt that this production made extensive use of locations around New York City.
This offered a vivid window into the past as well as delivering on the laughs, as while Speedy was not Lloyd's funniest work, the innate sense of a positive young man doing his level best in an often hostile environment was key to the star's appeal. His distinctive look, like Buddy Holly later on a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles that made him stand out, may have been entirely manufactured to do just that, but was indicative of his canny approach to his characters and humour, distinguishing him against his rivals. What he was best at was devising the setpieces for his character to get involved with, or assembling a top notch team around him to assist in precisely this, and though he mostly directed his films himself, he would allow the credit to go to one of that team, in this instance Ted Wilde.
Wilde was one of Lloyd's best writers; it was a great shock when he died suddenly the year after Speedy was made, with some attributing his loss to Lloyd's subsequent lack of hits at the box office, as if he had lost his common touch. Certainly the emphasis here was on the world the audience knew, where the little guy would pit his wits against a society that could be fraught with mishap or even danger - with the Depression just around the corner they didn't know the half of it. This was noticeable in how crowded New York looked before Lloyd's cameras: witness the scenes where he and Jane visit Coney Island, and the place is absolutely mobbed with people, as if to highlight what a hubbub the nation was becoming. Throw in a cameo from baseball legend Babe Ruth, another of the most famous Americans of 1928, who is thrown around frantically in the back of Harold's taxi cab in a very funny scene, and it was all about crowdpleasing for Speedy, a film that lived up to its name by rocketing along, haring through its jokes and slapstick, finding time for a comedy dog and a heartstring-plucking sentimentality, its general air of optimism proving just the tonic for twenties moviegoers. It remains a winning watch to this day.