Harold Lloyd

Harold Lloyd 101

On a recent business trip, I took my team out to dinner and had some fun telling them some of the absurdly implausible anecdotes from my peripatetic life (I was bit by a giraffe! Picasso’s lover bought my daughter a toy! I accidentally imprinted myself on a pair of doves and they followed me around for months! I was almost arrested by Homeland Security! I hung up on Hollywood mega-producer Roy Lee because I thought he was a telemarketer!) Eventually I got around to one of my favorite anecdotes:

After completing work on American Slapstick Volume 2, I wanted to donate the Harold Lloyd materials to the Harold Lloyd Trust. I called them up, explained what I had, and offered to give them the film elements and the digital transfers. The Trust representative thanked me, and said that someone would be by later that afternoon to pick them up.

Come again? I live in the Chicago suburbs—the Harold Lloyd Trust is based in Los Angeles. How were they gonna have someone swing by in a few hours of the same day I called them? Did Lloyd’s heirs operate some freaky black ops helicopters, ready to deploy anywhere at anytime? Actually, it turned out that one of Lloyd’s heirs happened to live nearby, and it was just a convenient coincidence.

My colleagues listened to this story and then hit me with a punchline I hadn’t been expecting: “Who’s Harold Lloyd?”

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Oh, poor Harold Lloyd. Once the “Third Genius,” one of the most popular and successful comedians of old Hollywood, author of probably the most famous image to emerge out of the silent era. Who he?

Coming up this week is one of Harold Lloyd’s best short comedies. It’s not even a half hour long, but please set your alarms or DVRs for Get Out and Get Under, because Harold needs you.

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Now, maybe y’all don’t need me to explain Harold Lloyd. You’re veteran film buffs who frequent a classic movie blog. You’ve read my rants about the ephemeral margins of Lloyd’s career—his little-seen early one-reelers, the screwball comedy he produced for Lucille Ball, his underrated work with Preston Sturges.

But here’s the deal: it’s not enough for us to know Harold Lloyd. We gotta spread the word. Each one teach one, as the saying goes. If you ever find yourself answering the question, “Who’s Harold Lloyd,” here are some talking points:

HE WAS THE EVERYMAN COMEDIAN

Silent slapstick was overrun by the Funny Moustache Brigade. But in a field crowded by buffoons in awkward costumes and silly facial hair, Harold Lloyd skipped the grotesqueries to focus on playing an ordinary, boyishly-handsome fellow. His one nod to the prevailing style was a set of tortoise-shell glasses—to brand his image and create a recognizable silhouette, but one that was real-looking.

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And his persona followed the image—an ordinary young man of recognizable ambitions.

Consider this scene from Speedy. He (temporarily) has a (fake) house with a wife and a dog. A comfortable middle-class idyll. In reality, the kid is dirt-poor ex-soda-jerk, hitching a ride on the back of a passing furniture van with his sweetie after a day at Coney Island. But for a moment his dreams are tangible, and we connect—his dreams are our dreams.

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In the 1960s, a new generation of slapstick fans found Lloyd’s middle-class aspirations to be troublingly conservative, and downgraded him in favor of the vagabond hero Charlie Chaplin or the Kafka-esque existentialism of Buster Keaton—better suited to the countercultural sensitivities of the day. But time marches on, and maybe today’s audiences are ready to sympathize with Harold’s ambitions.

HE GAVE GOOD CHASE

In the 1915 Mack Sennett short Court House Crooks, Harold got a rare breakout moment long before the world knew his name. For an extended sequence in this film, Harold gets the command the frame and lead the police on a frantic chase—a portend of things to come.

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Lloyd’s films often revolve around chases, and as his canvas expanded from one reel to two, from two to five, from five to ten, his chases grew more ambitious.

Consider this scene from Girl Shy. The clock is ticking and our hero has to get to the church in time to stop his sweetie from marrying a bigamist. The massive, sprawling, epic chase includes a terrific moment when Harold’s car is stopped on a winding mountain road by a junker running the opposite direction. Unable to get around the blocking vehicle, and unable to convince the other driver to back up, Lloyd simply trades cars (!) and drives off (in reverse) in the junk car as the flummoxed other driver realizes how much he has traded up. Problem solved.

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THRILL COMEDY

A fair bit of Harold’s comedy isn’t jokes per se, but in absurd, farcical situations contrived to provoke death-defying stunts. These stunts tend to elicit gasps, or shrieks, more than laughs.

South California is full of steep hills—some of them can produce optical illusions of you frame them just right. Lloyd started playing with this effect, setting up perfectly safe situations framed against the hills in such a way as to suggest that a distant street in the valley below was actually the street below a skyscraper, turning safe heights into impossibly dangerous ones. He experimented with different ways of exploiting this illusion, with various contrived reasons to get him out onto the ledge of a “skyscraper” in various short films.

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In Safety Last! he hit upon the prefect formula to exploit the effect. It took patient plotting—spending several reels doing nothing but establishing a series of premises, assumptions, and conflicts that in the finale all lock into place to force Harold to climb a tall building with his bare hands. The soul of the movie is the climb itself, but it works because of the skillful way in which Lloyd and his gagwriters made sure the absurdity was grounded in logic (and the logic grounded in absurdity).

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There are other things to celebrate about Lloyd, of course—he pioneered preview screenings! He was the first silent comedian to make a talkie feature! He shot 3-D nudes in color! But if you need to indoctrinate a newbie, just grab any of the features I mentioned here (Speedy, Girl Shy, Safety Last!) and you can’t go wrong.

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12 Responses Harold Lloyd 101
Posted By Tom S : March 7, 2015 9:21 am

I like Lloyd, but it is hard for me not to agree with the counter culture- his actual persona isn’t the inherent delight that Chaplin and Keaton (and Langdon, and Laurel and Hardy, and on and on) are- so when his work is just setting the table, which it spends a lot of time doing, it doesn’t have much of a charge.

It doesn’t help that he seems to have been sort of the Establishment option of the big three, accepting a Good Citizen award from the academy which had been intended as a specific snub to Chaplin- one assumes Lloyd wasn’t taking it as a snub, but it still puts him in a weird place. Certainly his movies still hold up, though, including some of the talkies- The Milky Way is a delight, and well worth catching.

Posted By Emgee : March 7, 2015 8:24 pm

I admire Chaplin and Keaton, but for me Lloyd’s movies have the most laughs. He honed his comedies to perfection, using audience reactions to cut out the lesser jokes. Probably more seen as a good craftsman than an Artist, like his famous colleagues, still, when i want a good laugh, i put on a Lloyd movie.

Posted By george : March 8, 2015 12:04 am

“My colleagues listened to this story and then hit me with a punchline I hadn’t been expecting: “Who’s Harold Lloyd?””

You’re surprised by this? I’m used to it. I no longer mention stars from the past when I’m around people under 30, because I’m tired of explaining who Groucho Marx or Abbott & Costello were.

I know people in their 20s who claim to have never seen a Clint Eastwood movie (although they have heard of him, vaguely). I certainly don’t expect them to have seen Lloyd, or any of Lloyd’s contemporaries.

Posted By doug n : March 8, 2015 2:34 am

“Girl Shy” is my favorite Lloyd vehicle. I first saw the famous race-to- the-church sequence at the Avenue Theater in San Francisco thirty-five years back. They ran silent films every Friday Night in those days, and this night there was a full house. Some people were such big fans that young ladies dressed as flappers and one or two guys were decked out as a reasonable facsimile of Harold himself.

Anyway the sequence was absolutely amazing to see on a big screen. It cemented in my mind the notion that Keaton and Chaplin might have been more universal in appeal, but Lloyd was the ultimate crowd-pleaser.

Posted By Ben Martin : March 9, 2015 2:10 pm

The company I work for aquired another company and I was to meet with some of the new folks at a trade show. One of the gentlemen I was to meet was actually named Harold Lloyd. When I met him in a group and used this interesting fact as a conversation starter, almost no one and ever heard of the comedian. Even more amazing, even my new friend Harold himself had only had the original Harold Lloyd brought up to him once or twice in his life. George is right, we shouldnt be surprised I suppose.

Posted By robbushblog : March 9, 2015 5:18 pm

Some people of my generation know who Chaplin is, fewer still know who Keaton is, and I’m 40. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit by people not knowing who Harold Lloyd is. Have you ever tried to get anyone to watch a silent movie? It’s a difficult task. My nephew is the only person I know who would even bother.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2015 2:05 am

I’m under 30 and I’ve watched and own, minimally, dozens of silent movies? It is something I share with a number of people within my rough age range, too- and some of them are FAR more advanced than I am, such that they knew about gems such as Paul Fejos’ Lonesome far before Criterion put it out, and have recommended things I would never have sought otherwise like the fantastic region 2 Jean Epstein box set.

Watching movies like these is a subculture thing, and it’s always a bit of a shock how little people who aren’t part of your subculture know about what you love- but it’s at best condescending and at worst a bit ageist to pin ignorance on ‘kids today’.

Posted By robbushblog : March 10, 2015 3:37 pm

Ageism? Yes, sure. But as you yourself said, young people in your age group who watch silent movies are a subculture, therefore out of the norm. None of my friends will watch silent movies and I’m 40. It’s an uncommon thing. There’s nothing wrong with saying that young people, while generalizing as people often do, do not know who Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd are. My friends’ kids don’t even know any Elvis or Sinatra songs. They have not been around me nearly enough.

Posted By george : March 16, 2015 10:04 pm

Growing up during the nostalgia craze of the ’70s, and with old black and white movies on local TV channels every day, helped people to become cinephiles in that era. It may require more work and initiative today, especially if your cable provider doesn’t have TCM.

Posted By george : March 23, 2015 8:22 pm

I recently saw Lloyd’s first talkie, WELCOME DANGER (1929). It had famous troubles: in production for a year, shot first as a silent, then a talkie. (Lloyd, like Chaplin, financed his movies with his own money, so he could take as much time as he liked.)

The result is pretty bizarre, and is incredibly long for a comedy — just under 2 hours. Near the end it drops the comedy and becomes a serious (and very violent) gangster movie set in Chinatown. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone but hardcore film buffs and Lloyd fans, who will find it very interesting, if not very good.

WELCOME DANGER is overstuffed like a modern blockbuster: it throws in everything including the kitchen sink, in an effort to give the folks their money’s worth. A huge hit in 1929, but most silent stars’ first talkies were hits because people were curious to hear their idols’ voices.

Posted By robbushblog : March 23, 2015 8:30 pm

I saw WELCOME DANGER last year when TCM aired it. It was tough to get through. It was, as you said, incredibly long, and felt longer.

Posted By george : July 7, 2015 9:10 pm

Thanks to DVD, the Internet and TCM, people have less excuse than ever to remain ignorant of Lloyd and other silent comics. As a teenage film buff in the ’70s, I could only dream of watching most Lloyd, Langdon and Keaton movies. Local TV stations didn’t air silents, and early talkies were rare catches. Now you can literally spend days watching their shorts and features on YouTube.

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