The last of the great silent clowns now on DVD
“Step Right Up and Call Me Speedy!”
Harold Lloyd has often — too often, really — been called the Anthony Trollope of silent film comedy. If you love Jane Austen, well, you certainly wish that there were more Jane Austen. And if you love Dickens, you wish there were more Dickens. At least, the conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood! I mean, is that too much to ask? But if you love Anthony Trollope, even if you really really love Anthony Trollope, you have enough. Another Barchester Towers? I don’t think so. The Eustace Diamonds Go to France? Maybe not.
And so it is with Harold Lloyd. Lloyd liked to work fast, and he liked to work often, far surpassing the snail-like Chaplin and even the hard-working Keaton.1 Harold broke into the biz ahead of both of his more famous competitors, getting work in LA in 1913, when New York was still the nation’s film capital. Unlike Keaton and Chaplin, he started at the bottom, working in such roles as a “Hottentot” in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914). As an extra, Lloyd ran into another struggling, ambitious young actor, a kid named Hal Roach. Roach came into a small inheritance; he and Lloyd noticed that another kid, named Charlie Chaplin, was the hottest thing in films. Comedy seemed like the way to go.
Roach and Lloyd came up with a rip-off of Chaplin’s tramp, known as “Lonesome Luke” (Lonesome Luke Loses Patients). They made over 70 LLs in about two years, often teaming Harold with Snub Pollard and Bebe Daniels.2 Sometime in 1917 Roach and Lloyd abandoned Lonesome Luke and invented “the kid with glasses” (or “the Boy,” as he is always identified in the credits3 ).
The new Harold Lloyd (with Jobyna Ralston) was a definite break with the working-class persona that Chaplin’s success had made de rigueur for film comics. The new Harold was always natty and well-dressed, almost aggressively middle-class, good-humored and unpretentious, but definitely in a hurry to get somewhere, and often ready to jump over the fellow ahead of him to do it. Lloyd’s features, beginning with Grandma’s Boy in 1921, always portrayed him as the girl-shy naïf, but in the shorts this isn’t the case. In a number of the two-reelers — Are Crooks Dishonest? for example — Lloyd and Pollard portray a team of con-men (who, of course, always get conned). In others, like Somewhere in Turkey,4 Lloyd is a bright, breezy young American abroad, always happy to ridicule local customs and score a princess.5
Lloyd’s sunny personality, his acrobatic skills, and his attention to comic detail make his best films a continual delight. In a typical gag, Lloyd attempts a simple task (filling a baby’s bottle with milk, for example) that, on the first attempt, goes seriously awry. Lloyd adjusts, only to encounter a second disaster. The third attempt conscientiously masters all obstacles, only to be brought to ruin by an entirely alien force.
Lloyd believed in simple plots — Harold trying to establish himself in a department store (Safety Last!, 1923); Harold trying to impress the kids at college (The Freshman, 1925); and, almost always, Harold trying to get up the nerve to win “the Girl”6 — and strong finishes, preferably a series of gags that unfold from one overarching task. The climax of Safety Last!, the source of the iconic shot of Harold dangling from the hands of a giant outdoor clock, is probably his masterpiece. To gain publicity for the department store, Harold arranges for his buddy, a high-iron worker, to climb the building.7 Unfortunately, the pal’s earlier wall-climbing exploits had irritated a cop, who sees the publicity for the stunt and has the wit to put two and two together. Harold’s buddy can’t make the climb with the flatfoot in the crowd. Desperate, Harold agrees to make the climb for the first floor, after which the buddy, hiding in the store, will take over. However, the cop isn’t fooled and maintains his pursuit, so that Harold is forced to make the entire climb himself, encountering a different obstacle on each floor — a flock of pigeons on one and a flock of charming female admirers on the next. The famous clock scene actually comes in the middle of the sequence.
One of Lloyd’s strongest films, and his personal favorite, is the little-known Kid Brother (1927), where Harold faces the challenge of impressing two two-fisted older brothers and a two-fisted father by overcoming both a town bully and a circus strongman. Like Grandma’s Boy, the film concludes with Harold giving his nemesis an extended beating — because Lloyd studied Douglas Fairbanks as closely as he did Chaplin.
Kino has released two DVDs devoted to Harold, offering Grandma’s Boy and a total of 17 shorts. The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, a seven-disc set, offers all 11 of Lloyd’s silent features, along with 4 of his talkies, 14 shorts, and numerous extras. The music for the collection, much of it newly composed by Robert Israel, is the best I’ve ever heard for restored silent films. The seventh disc, playable on a computer, contains an extensive Harold Lloyd archive, with hundreds of stills, posters, etc., along with home movies taken of the Lloyd family on Greenacres, Lloyd’s massive estate, plus 3-D photos taken by photographer Lloyd, including three of Marilyn Monroe.8 (Despite what you may have heard, or imagined, Marilyn’s wearing a bathing suit in all three.9)
Yes, there’s plenty of Harold Lloyd. But we still don’t have enough. A plethora of classic shorts still languish in obscurity. Where is A Sammy in Siberia? And Kicking the Germ Out of Germany? And Two Scrambled? Another dozen, please! Make that two!
Lloyd worked hard to maintain himself as a star when talkies came in, but none of the eight sound features he made recaptured the magic of his earlier work, even though films like Feet First (1930) have some very good moments. Part of the problem was Lloyd himself. When the sound era started he’d gained 15 or 20 pounds since he made Safety Last back in 1923. He looked like a middle-aged man now, and, sadly — for life is unfair10 — the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged man are not as compelling, or as marketable, as those of a young one.
- Chaplin is credited with 87 films, a third of them made in his first year, 1914, with Mack Sennett. Keaton worked in 127 films, from 1915 to 1966. Lloyd appeared in 206, from 1913 to 1948. Keaton actually appeared in more feature films than Lloyd — in fact, he made more silent features than Lloyd did — but Lloyd cranked out the shorts at a prodigious rate, starring in 39 of them in 1919 alone. [↩]
- Daniels broke into films in 1910. She was the first Dorothy, starring in the 1910 version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the first Brigid O’Shaughnessy, starring in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon (although her character was called “Ruth Wonderly”). [↩]
- The opening credits of the shorts tend to be both flippant and sentimental. One of them gives “The Time” as “June Days” and “The Place” as “The Road to Romance.” [↩]
- Could a film be more politically incorrect? If you’re a Turk, or have any affection at all for the Ottoman Empire, you should probably skip this one. [↩]
- The early shorts sometimes looked both forward and backward. In From Hand to Mouth (1919), Harold looks middle-class, but he’s still down and out, hungry and not a penny in his pocket. But in the course of 14 minutes he manages to rescue an heiress, a cute little girl, and her puppy! [↩]
- After Bebe Daniels left for feature films in 1919, Lloyd replaced her with Mildred Harris, whom he married in 1923. Apparently, Lloyd didn’t think married women should work, because he replaced Mildred with Jobyna Ralston. [↩]
- Lloyd explored the humor of high-iron work earlier in Never Weaken, one of his best shorts. [↩]
- The set can also be obtained as three separate two-disc sets, with no Marilyn. [↩]
- But she still looks great. [↩]
- In fact, life is very unfair. [↩]