by David Sanjek

16 May 2005

Harold Lloyd was one of the most and successful silent film comedians. And yet, for today's audiences, he remains mostly unknown. In his day, however, Lloyd rivaled Chaplin and Keaton at the box office, making films for over 20 years.

Harold Lloyd was one of the most and successful silent film comedians. And yet, for today’s audiences, he remains mostly unknown. In his day, however, Lloyd rivaled Chaplin and Keaton at the box office, making films for over 20 years. He established a durable persona: the fearless Everyman who surmounts all obstacles, wins the girl, and makes his mark on a recalcitrant environment.

The Lloyd estate has recently struck new prints of his major works, commissioning new scores and screening the results at New York’s prestigious revival house, Film Forum, for a month, 20 April through 17 May. The series included the original silent version of The Kid Brother (1927) for the first time in over 75 years, as well as Welcome Danger (1929), screened in a new 35mm restoration. And in the fall of this year, the body of Lloyd’s work will be issued on DVD.

Lloyd came to Hollywood in the early teens, where he met producer Hal Roach, the administrative intelligence behind Laurel and Handy as well as the many permutations of Our Gang and the Little Rascals. The two men began to collaborate in 1915, when Lloyd conjured up the “Lonesome Luke” persona, one of the era’s many Chaplin knock-offs. Luke won over audiences, though, as Lloyd made up for a lack of innovation by packing the one- and two-reelers with gag after gag at a breakneck pace.

Around 1919, when most other comedians were playing oddballs, Lloyd took on a character more average than outlandish. Audiences identified with this alternately shy and hyperactive young man, whose round-framed glasses gave him an air of apparent fragility that collided with his impetuosity. This type resonated with the hyperkinetic social atmosphere of the so-called Jazz Age. In his willingness to do just about anything to succeed, Lloyd captured the zeitgeist in a way that Chaplin’s tramp or Keaton’s great stone face never did.

Lloyd’s genius was perhaps most visible in his treatment of gags. He did not think of them as comedic window dressing, bits of business to sprinkle through a haphazard narrative. In the best sense of the phrase, Lloyd’s films are well-oiled comedic machines, elaborated engineered mechanisms to generate laughs. He connected individual pieces of behavior through incremental elaboration, building from chortle to chuckle to flat-out belly laugh. Combining the absurd and the realistic, Lloyd conjured up a recognizable universe that succumbed regularly to chaos and calamity, only to resume normalcy in the final reel.

Take his series of so-called “thrill comedies.” Lloyd favored the unease brought about through the sensation of height and a body’s loss of security once detached from the ground beneath it. He figured out how to film stunts on actual structures so camera angles made him look at extreme risk, and so he rarely employed stuntmen. (One can see how Lloyd, as well as Keaton, influenced later stars like Jackie Chan, who similarly strive for authenticity of performance by routinely putting their body in peril.)

The most famous of these films, and the source of the clock image mentioned above, is Safety Last (1923). Drawing on the period phenomenon of the “human fly”—who climbed up and down urban edifices without the aid of rope or safety net—Lloyd employed a daredevil, Bill Strother, as his co-star. Harold’s protagonist is a menial clerk in an upscale urban department store, who wishes to impress his fiancée by winning the store owner’s offer of $1,000 for anyone who can advertise the company to a wider constituency. When Strother’s character can’t perform, Lloyd replaces him in the ascent. One obstacle after another—pigeons, dangling ropes, the clock, a dog—almost knock him off his path. Through the artful camera set-ups, the sequence possesses a verisimilitude that leads one to gasp at each impediment. The steady build-up of fumble after fumble epitomizes Lloyd’s attention to detail and narrative structure.

At the same time, Lloyd had a keen sense of the absurd, demonstrated in the 1923 feature Why Worry?, where he plays an absent-minded tourist who fails to realize that the South American state he visits has succumbed to revolution. Even more outrageous is his oversized costar, an eight-and-a-half foot giant, whose rotten tooth Lloyd attempts to extract before he transforms the behemoth into a mobile piece of artillery by lashing a cannon barrel to his back and tying a basket of armaments around his chin. Even in such a delightful domestic fare as the uproarious Hot Water (1924), Lloyd concocts a cockeyed sequence out of a mother-in-law who sleepwalks and the presumption that he has overmedicated her with chloroform.

Lloyd had entered acting with the aim of being a serious performer, and when he succeeded in the knockabout vein, he sought to solicit audience sympathy. But while his hapless efforts to be one of the boys in The Freshmen (1925), he was unable to sustain this underdog effect. However much Lloyd’s characters met with hardships, they never come across as disillusioned or depressed.

Perhaps the closest he came to playing a rounded character was in the unsung masterpiece, The Kid Brother. Set in a rural landscape, the film features Lloyd as the youngest and least demonstrative of the local sheriff’s three sons. A traveling medicine show comes to town, but when the upright citizens reject its performers, they abscond with the money held by Lloyd’s father to pay for a new dam. The temporarily out-maneuvered protagonist eventually recovers not only the cash but his errant reputation by virtually clobbering into submission an opponent near the size of his brothers. The plot, which resembles one of the most influential rural melodramas of the day, Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921), has Lloyd using established archetypes without dispensing with the belly laughs.

Lloyd’s career lasted past silent features, and he never fought the coming of sound as did some of his peers. He willingly re-shot a transitional feature, Welcome Danger, for sound when the technology proved irresistible. This film and its successor, Feet First (1930), retained his audience, yet Movie Crazy (1932) evidenced a precipitous drop off in public affection for the comedian. This even though it is one of the best plotted of his sound releases, featuring adroit use of both moving camera and deep-focus photography, showing that changes in technology liberated sight as much as sound.

After three more erratic and unsuccessful releases—The Cat’s Paw (1934), The Milky Way (1936), and Professor Beware (1938)—Lloyd walked away from stardom without any apparent regret. One of the titans of 1940s comedy, Preston Sturges, enticed him back, yet their collaboration, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1946), proved a debacle. Sturges thought to update the figure in Lloyd’s The Freshman as well as resurrect the high-jinks of the thrill comedies, but the star seemed oppressed by the material, and his dissatisfaction showed. Producer Howard Hughes re-edited the film, and re-issued it as Mad Wednesday, but to no avail. Lloyd’s happy-go-lucky character was affiliated with a bygone era.

Despite transformations of comic taste, Lloyd’s character nowadays retains much of its energy and virtually all of its wit. Lloyd insures that we respect the commitment to entertainment as something of a calling. Few answered for so long and so successfully as he did.

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