Mission critical Harold Lloyd

This week TCM debuts some super-rare Harold Lloyd shorts from the early years of his career.  I cannot overstate the significance of this find.

I was asked by TCM to write some material for the web site to introduce Harold Lloyd in general and some of these shorts in particular, but the specific remit of that assignment was kind of limiting, so I have a lot else to say about these films that didn’t fit into the website content.  But hey—I have a blog!

Harold Lloyd, Film Land's Famous Comedian

So—the first order of business is to ‘splain just why these shorts are so all-fired important.

You see, most histories of silent comedy tend to focus on two major turning points in the lives of each of the major slapstick comedians: a) the moment when they transitioned out of two-reel shorts and into features, and b) the moment they transitioned out of silent films and into talkies.  Our understanding of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and their various contemporaries has largely drawn from how they navigated these crucial turning points.

But in the case of Harold Lloyd, there are actually two major artistic turning points that far eclipse those more familiar ones, but which have been largely ignored by history.  In terms of understanding Lloyd’s development as an artist, his handling of the leap to features and to talkies were pretty effortless transitions for a man who’d already taken his knocks long ago—if we want to grapple with Lloyd’s artistic evolution, the real things to pay attention to are a) when he stopped playing Lonesome Luke and put on his trademark glasses instead, and b) when he transitioned from one-reel shorts to two.

The only problem is, these turning points occurred in a cycle of films that have been largely unavailable, and so even if scholars recognized that these turning points mattered hugely, they just weren’t things anyone was in a position to actually comment on.  Until now.

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Let’s pause a moment and walk through the chronology of all this: Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach were working as Hollywood extras in 1913-15.  If you have my DVD of American Slapstick Volume 1, put on A Submarine Pirate and listen to my commentary.  Wait until the bit where I say I don’t think Harold Lloyd is even in the movie, then pause it and look at the cook in the background: that’s Harold Lloyd (it wasn’t my finest moment in the history of audio commentaries).  Mack Sennett eventually gave Harold a prominent role, in 1915’s Courthouse Crooks.

I’d intended to release Courthouse Crooks in the never-produced American Slapstick Volume 3, so these clips don’t have any music.  But as you can see, this short put Harold into the role he would eventually make his own: an Everyman hero facing impossible odds, and always on the run:

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If that augured a new place for Lloyd on the Keystone lot, it was too late: he and Roach decamped to start their own company, Rolin.  But since the startup venture was undercapitalized and fraught with risk, Harold had the good sense to take few creative risks.

Rolin "Phunfilm" 1915

This is where the Lonesome Luke era starts—a cycle of 62 one-reel shorts Lloyd made between 1915 and 1917.  In Lloyd’s own description, the Luke character was designed to riff on Chaplin: “The cunning thought behind all this was to reverse the  Chaplin outfit.  All his clothes were too large.  Mine were going to be too small.  My shoes were funny but different.  My moustache was funny but different, as well.  Despite the fact that my costume was a direct reversal of Chaplin’s, it was purely imitative.”

With so little of the Luke era available for viewing, this is the part that commentators latched onto to have something to say about it.  When Tom Dardis wrote Lloyd’s biography in 1983, at that time only four Luke films were known to survive.  But what everyone “knew” about them were that they were Chaplin imitations.

Which is sort of true.  Thirty years after Dardis made his count, we now know 14 Luke films to have survived (http://haroldlloyd.us/the-films/the-state-of-the-lloyd-films/)—I’ve only seen a handful (Luke Joins the Navy, Luke’s Movie Muddle, Lonesome Luke Messenger) but what I see in them is mostly consistent with the way they’ve been described.

Take for example this clip from Lonesome Luke, Messenger.  Luke is trying to finagle his way into a girls’ boarding school by posing as an electrician.  He is neither a competent electrician nor a competent bike messenger (his earlier attempt to deliver a package to the school—which was actually his job—failed, which is what led him to grab a pile of wires and try again).  The Chaplinesque elements include the costume (as noted), his laconic attitude and balletic slapstick as he swans in, towing chaos in his wake, and his status as an outsider crashing the party.

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But there’s something missing.  In film after film, Chaplin was the rambling outsider tramp, caught up in slapstick mayhem, but he tended to be able to function in these alien situations anyway.  That was part of the comedy.  He never failed to do things correctly—instead he succeeded at doing things he just wasn’t supposed to have been doing in the first place.  It’s a subtle thing, and a lot of Chaplin mimics missed it.

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So for all the Chaplinesque trappings around Luke, he couldn’t actually do Chaplinesque comedy because Luke was designed as a failure.  Here’s a guy who can’t even deliver a package.  If this was a Chaplin film, Charlie would stagger in with fistfuls of random wires, and then somehow miraculously actually wire up the house after all.  (see also Buster Keaton’s The Electric House, where that’s exactly what he does).

But within months of that film came the “glasses character.”  That’s what all the books call it—the “glasses character.”  Lloyd took off the anti-Chaplin costume and put on a pair of wide-rimed glasses and found fame and success.

Harold Lloyd

Except, now that we can see these early glasses films rather than just make assumptions about them, there’s something else going on.  Here are some stills, taken from Bashful, A Gasoline Wedding, and Take a Chance.

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Notice something about them?  He didn’t just put on glasses—he had a whole costume that went along with them, a fancy dress three-piece suit and top hat!  He abandoned that outfit after a while, and no one’s really talked about it since, but it helps mark the transition for us: although he’s dressed like a rich man, that’s not how the character is written.  He’s living hand-to-mouth, just trying to get by.  In Take a Chance, he starts off wondering how to spend his last quarter: he can either have a meal or get a hair cut.  One or the other.  Then he loses his quarter and can’t have either.  He does all this while wearing that suit.

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So what we have is a character depicted as a striver, a yearner.  Instead of being an outsider because of his inability to conform, he is an outsider by circumstance, struggling to get in and succeed.  He’s dressed for the job he wants to have (rich guy).  And whenever opportunity knocks, he’s prepared to go to extreme lengths to seize it.  His business strategies are dishonest, he’s quick to shove another out of his way to get what he wants, he’s pushy—but he’s endearing because he is defined in affirmative terms.  He wants something.  In contemporary parlance, that makes him proactive.

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And so the comedy is still chase scenes and Keystone-inflected knockabout.  Some of these early “glasses” shorts feel like off-brand Keystone films in every detail—Take a Chance is a prime offender in the let’s rip off Mack Sennett sweepstakes.  But what changed was the underlying structure of that slapstick: he swapped out a comedy of failure for one of success, and gave the audience a character they could root for.  He stepped away from the most recognizable superficial aspects of Chaplin mimickry but surreptitiously stepped closer to Chaplin’s secret formula.

From 1917 to 1919 he churned through endless variations of this material, refining and improving as he went.  If you watch the entire block of shorts in a row, you’ll risk tiring of seeing the same gags over and over—but the obsessive focus on refinement paid off.  He moved away from the top hat and tails, abandoned the Keystone approach of simply choosing an interesting location and hoping for the best, he gradually allowed his supporting cast to stop playing grotesques and start playing realistic human beings, and he redirected the slapstick away from violence for violence’s sake.

 Harold Lloyd

Then in 1919 he stopped making one-reel shorts, and with Bumping Into Broadway started making two-reelers.  This was a gargantuan leap for the Hal Roach Studio, which had been so ramshackle and amateur a studio that managing to do two-reelers was a technical and logistical challenge they hadn’t cracked for years.  But the real money was in two-reelers, and if the studio was going to survive they needed to make that leap.

Eventually, Lloyd broke with Roach and started his own studio.  And afterwards, he came back to his old boss and partner and negotiated to buy the rights to a package of his back catalog, to preserve and maintain.  The Harold Lloyd estate has since kept care of those films and helped keep them in circulation in various media.  But there was a catch: when Lloyd made that deal, he bought the rights from Bumping Into Broadway forward.  He left the one-reelers on the other side of the divide, orphaned, destined to be forgotten.  Fire eventually consumed most of them, hence our lingering uncertainty over what survives.

The Harold Lloyd estate has since gone back and acquired as much of the pre-Bumping Into Broadway material as possible, and that’s what has led to this week’s extravaganza.  But it is very telling that Harold Lloyd made the choice he did, to orphan those older films.  By 1919 he’d worked out what he was doing, and all traces of the earlier experimentation were gone.  He could start from there, and present to the world a coherent back catalog of films for which he need make no excuses or explanations.

But for the scholars and fans who want to see how he became the Lloyd we know and love, those early experiments are absolutely mission critical.

18 Responses Mission critical Harold Lloyd
Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : May 18, 2013 9:35 am

Bravo and absolutely correct. I can’t wait to see the films.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : May 18, 2013 9:35 am

Bravo and absolutely correct. I can’t wait to see the films.

Posted By Doug : May 18, 2013 11:51 am

Thank you, David, for sharing more of Lloyd and your passion for his work. Seeing these short clips and the information you share, it helps me to better understand why Lloyd is often mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.

Posted By Doug : May 18, 2013 11:51 am

Thank you, David, for sharing more of Lloyd and your passion for his work. Seeing these short clips and the information you share, it helps me to better understand why Lloyd is often mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy.

Posted By Tom S : May 18, 2013 2:22 pm

I saw that there’s a second upcoming Criterion release for which you did a commentary (To Be or Not To Be! Easily one of the most exciting announcements of the year!) and it looks as though Criterion’s going to do more Harold Lloyd- any chance you’ll get to do any commentaries on those? Are you out of retirement or just taking on the occasional project at this point?

Posted By Tom S : May 18, 2013 2:22 pm

I saw that there’s a second upcoming Criterion release for which you did a commentary (To Be or Not To Be! Easily one of the most exciting announcements of the year!) and it looks as though Criterion’s going to do more Harold Lloyd- any chance you’ll get to do any commentaries on those? Are you out of retirement or just taking on the occasional project at this point?

Posted By davidkalat : May 18, 2013 3:33 pm

Wow–I didn’t realize that TO BE OR NOT TO BE was public already–but I just confirmed at the Criterion web site that it is. And it’s got a fabulous cover! In the past I think Criterion’s struggled with coming up with cover art for comedies as clever as the ones they do for more traditional arthouse fare, but I’m glad that’s changing.

I’m still “retired,” but I can coaxed out of my reclusive hide with the right movie, now and again. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is as good as it gets, frankly, and if I said no to that, then I’d never say yes to anything, would I?

Posted By davidkalat : May 18, 2013 3:33 pm

Wow–I didn’t realize that TO BE OR NOT TO BE was public already–but I just confirmed at the Criterion web site that it is. And it’s got a fabulous cover! In the past I think Criterion’s struggled with coming up with cover art for comedies as clever as the ones they do for more traditional arthouse fare, but I’m glad that’s changing.

I’m still “retired,” but I can coaxed out of my reclusive hide with the right movie, now and again. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is as good as it gets, frankly, and if I said no to that, then I’d never say yes to anything, would I?

Posted By Doug : May 18, 2013 7:25 pm

Speaking of “To Be Or Not To Be” I would love “George Washington Slept Here” to be on DVD or Blu. I know it’s a lesser effort than the Lubitsch classic, but it has it’s charms.
As for the silent to talkie transition, one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy silents was “Bacon Grabbers”. Like Lloyd, they didn’t need sound to be funny. Their characters were so well set that when sound came, I imagine many in the audience nodded their heads,thinking: “Yup-that’s exactly what I thought they would sound like.”

Posted By Doug : May 18, 2013 7:25 pm

Speaking of “To Be Or Not To Be” I would love “George Washington Slept Here” to be on DVD or Blu. I know it’s a lesser effort than the Lubitsch classic, but it has it’s charms.
As for the silent to talkie transition, one of my favorite Laurel and Hardy silents was “Bacon Grabbers”. Like Lloyd, they didn’t need sound to be funny. Their characters were so well set that when sound came, I imagine many in the audience nodded their heads,thinking: “Yup-that’s exactly what I thought they would sound like.”

Posted By robbushblog : May 20, 2013 11:02 am

I’m sorry that I’m going to miss these shorts. Bummer.

Posted By robbushblog : May 20, 2013 11:02 am

I’m sorry that I’m going to miss these shorts. Bummer.

Posted By swac44 : May 20, 2013 3:07 pm

I’m definitely going to be recording these for posterity. I learned of Lloyd around the same time as Chaplin, thanks to late ’70s airings of those old Time-Life prints of Safety Last and Speedy on CBC-TV (in English and in French, where I didn’t need to understand the language to enjoy the comedy). I’ve only seen a few shorts of Lloyd’s, but I feel like there’s a real treasure trove of undiscovered comic brilliance in there for me.

Posted By swac44 : May 20, 2013 3:07 pm

I’m definitely going to be recording these for posterity. I learned of Lloyd around the same time as Chaplin, thanks to late ’70s airings of those old Time-Life prints of Safety Last and Speedy on CBC-TV (in English and in French, where I didn’t need to understand the language to enjoy the comedy). I’ve only seen a few shorts of Lloyd’s, but I feel like there’s a real treasure trove of undiscovered comic brilliance in there for me.

Posted By Doug : May 22, 2013 10:57 am

Slightly off topic, but this is a Lloyd post, so…

This exchange happened this morning at our breakfast group:
John:”Do they still have clowns at kid’s parties?”
Doug:”No, it’s a lost art; those are mighty big shoes to fill.”

(I have no shame)

Posted By Doug : May 22, 2013 10:57 am

Slightly off topic, but this is a Lloyd post, so…

This exchange happened this morning at our breakfast group:
John:”Do they still have clowns at kid’s parties?”
Doug:”No, it’s a lost art; those are mighty big shoes to fill.”

(I have no shame)

Posted By Steve655321 : May 24, 2013 2:35 pm

Hello:
In one of the shorts played Thursday night there was a scene when Harry’s character went into a pawn shop. The pawn dealer was a fawning, conniving, big-nosed creep continually rubbing his hands just waiting to fleece the innocent Harry. In other words a Jew-hater’s image of a typical Jew. Was Lloyd anti-semetic or am I just over reacting? Thank you.

Posted By Steve655321 : May 24, 2013 2:35 pm

Hello:
In one of the shorts played Thursday night there was a scene when Harry’s character went into a pawn shop. The pawn dealer was a fawning, conniving, big-nosed creep continually rubbing his hands just waiting to fleece the innocent Harry. In other words a Jew-hater’s image of a typical Jew. Was Lloyd anti-semetic or am I just over reacting? Thank you.

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