The first time the middle finger gesture was caught on film, probably, was on the boardwalk of Coney Island in 1928. The historic moment comes about midway through the silent film Speedy, one of the most famous of the era, with Harold Lloyd's eponymous character flipping himself off in a funhouse mirror. Nearly nine decades later, the fact that Lloyd, a squeaky-clean family comedian on par with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, would perform such an obscenity continues to puzzle and delight film and middle finger buffs alike. But this is not even the highlight of Speedy...
The best part of the film comes from Lloyd's rare (and expensive!) commitment to shooting wild NYC chase scenes on location. And way before The French Connection.
His insistence may have run the movie's price tag near $1 million, an exorbitant amount for the time. The time capsule it provides today, however, seems well worth that cost. According to historian John Bengtson, Speedy "captures some of the best photographic documentation of silent-era New York ever recorded." And it's not just in those chase scenes—we also get a look at comical subway commutes. Lucky for us, dozens of these clips are available on YouTube.
The film's premise, laid out in the opening title cards, is that New Yorkers are in "such a hurry that they take Saturday's bath on Friday so they can do Monday's washing on Sunday," except for in one "old-fashioned corner of the city," where the last horse drawn streetcar still ambles down the road. When a railroad baron attempts to shut down this final route, it's up to Speedy to save the day, leading to a series of very extreme transit gags.
Those scenes were filmed on location in New York City over a 10 week period beginning in October of 1927, with a few additional shots taken in a 30-acre Greenwich Village replica in Los Angeles, according the Post. Lloyd tended to attract huge crowds while in New York, so the director would sometimes hide cameras in a laundry wagon for more discreet street filming. In one particularly famous scene, a horse-drawn carriage crashes into the old IRT elevated subway tracks near Bowling Green—a collision that was apparently unplanned, yet still made the final cut of the movie.
The best scenes offer a breakneck tour of old New York, complete with elevated trains, unmanned buses, and a half-built Bergdorf Goodman. At one point, Babe Ruth, who'd broken the home run record the previous year, makes an extended cameo as a helpless passenger in Speedy's cab. The drive to the newly-erected Yankees Stadium nearly kills them both, and the scene ends with Ruth telling Speedy (via title card), "If I ever want to commit suicide, I'll give you a call."
The following card reads: "You can always go by Horse and Carriage. But hold on tight," and the scene quickly shifts to our madcap horses riding wild through the city. Look at them go, thrashing through the streets, and remember that as crazy as NYC traffic seems today, at least we have lanes.