There’s something strangely normal about watching an early 20th-century film artist on 21st century technology. Harold Lloyd was one of the biggest stars of silent movies. He began his career with a bit part in Thomas Edison’s 1913 The Old Monk’s Tale, continued with Mack Sennett (he even played a Keystone Kop), and Hal Roach, and put out more than 100 one- and two-reelers during the teens before donning horn rimmed glasses and a boater hat to come up with his signature character. In this guise, he made great silent movies, including Safety Last! (1923), The Freshman (1925), and Speedy (1928), and moved smoothly into talkies.
In 1928, Variety named him the richest man in Hollywood. But as the Roaring Twenties turned into the Depression, Lloyd’s pep seemed dated. He quietly retired from making movies, with the glorious exception of starring in Preston Sturges’ The Sins of Harold Diddlebock (1947), which began at the moment Lloyd’s The Freshman climaxed. Through the ‘50s, Lloyd continued to make public appearances. He received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1952, the first Oscar show broadcast live on TV coast-to-coast, appeared as a guest on This is Your Life, and gave sundry lectures at universities and film institutes.
Still, Lloyd was largely forgotten when he died in 1971. The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection should help bring him back into the limelight. It offers seven DVDs of movies, featurettes, home movies, interviews with offbeat celebrities like Tab Hunter and Robert Wagner, and other oddities, such as a selection of some of the 300,000 3D photographs Lloyd took (the box comes complete with a pair of 3D glasses).
Ironically, Lloyd’s obscurity is partly the result of his own foresight. He was one of the few actors who ran his own production studios. He not only had complete creative control, he also ran the business. Lloyd employed his key people all year on salary, including his camera operators. If he wasn’t making a motion picture, he’d tell his crew to bring the 35mm movie cameras to his house to film birthday parties, family gatherings, and the like. He also kept control of prints of his movies, so they could not be shown without his permission, and he was rich enough that he did not need to sell them to television. (Director and Lloyd family friend Richard Correll tells a story about an interviewer who asked Howard Hughes to name the most difficult actor he ever worked with. Hughes answered, “Harold Lloyd.” Hughes explained that it wasn’t that Lloyd was difficult in the conventional sense; it was just that Lloyd was so rich that Hughes couldn’t bully or bribe him with money.)
The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection gathers together more than two dozen assorted movies, from Hal Roach’s 13-minute Billy Blazes, Esq. (1917) to the 102-minute talking flick The Cat’s-Paw (1934). Safety Last!, Speedy, and The Freshman are here, as are other top-notch silent pictures like Dr. Jack (1922), Hot Water (1924), and The Kid Brother (1927), and an assortment from over the years (Ask Father , Haunted Spooks , and the Leo McCarey-directed Movie Crazy ). Several come with audio commentaries by Lloyd’s granddaughters, Suzanne Lloyd and Annette D’Agostino Lloyd, with critic Leonard Maltin and Richard Correll. Lloyd’s granddaughters share intimate details of their family life, creating some context for his work.
While some of the extra features will appeal only to diehard fans (the University of Southern California’s Delta Kappa Alpha tribute to Lloyd, hosted by Jack Lemmon and Steve Allen, or a Social Security infomercial featuring Lloyd), the movies themselves are all first rate. Various personalities (such as John Landis and historian Kevin Brownlow) consider the popularity of Lloyd’s glasses-wearing character, none particularly insightful. Lloyd suggests it was the character’s “brain over brawn” aspect, the little guy whose resourcefulness eventually helped him overcome obstacles and get the girl. As the average All-American white guy, Lloyd was like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegoners, above average.
Lloyd’s appeal has to do with his construction of whiteness in an age of mass immigration. This works both ways. He’s accepted as an ideal “American,” who’s also accepting of others. A great scene in Speedy has several old men, family friends, assist Lloyd in beating up a group hired thugs. His supporters come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and employ the tools of their trades as weapons (i.e., the Chinese laundryman takes out his hot pressing iron and burns the bad guys on the butt). These city denizens see Lloyd as one of their own.
When Lloyd plays a rich man, as in A Sailor Made Man (1921) and For Heaven’s Sake (1926), he’s also a “regular guy,” with a proclivity for perils. Whether he’s climbing the side of 10-story building and hanging on to the hands of a clock for dear life (Safety Last!) or headed down the street in a runaway vehicle (Hot Water), Lloyd succeeds because of his very ordinariness. He doesn’t have super strength, agility or speed, he just uses Yankee ingenuity, celebrated in the heady days after World War I.
For the Comedy Collection, the movies have been restored and re-mastered. One can discern the grain in the wood paneling on the wall behind a desk and the rough texture of a white cotton dress. As a film technician mentions in one of the included featurettes, this is how the movies would be seen by audiences at the time they were released. The scratchiness and blurriness one associates with old movies is the direct result of the reels being played so often and wearing out. Lloyd took meticulous care of his films. This compilation attests to his talents as an actor, a filmmaker and caretaker of his own works.