Harold Lloyd, one of the greatest comedians of silent film, is poised for a comeback. In anticipation of the November release of more than two dozen of his films on DVD, Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco’s Castro Theater are screening some of the comedian’s best features.
PFA is showing a Lloyd film at 3 p.m. every Sunday through Aug. 7 and the Castro will screen a series of double features Aug. 19-25.
Lloyd’s career spanned 34 years and more than 200 films, from one- and two-reel shorts to full-length features. Though he worked with writers and co-directors, Lloyd was one of the early auteurs, controlling nearly every facet of production.
If it sometimes seems that Lloyd cannot be discussed these days without unflattering comparisons to legendary contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, it is at least partially Lloyd’s own fault. Whereas the films of Chaplin and Keaton have been readily available for some years in revivals, on television, and home video, Lloyd chose to withhold his work after he retired, not releasing it to the public other than in a few compilations of the 1960s.
But now, thanks to Suzanne Lloyd, the comedian’s granddaughter and president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc., these classic silent comedies are finally seeing release, with a dozen or so forming the core of a retrospective now touring the country.
Comedy did not come easily to the young Harold Lloyd. He worked hard to acquire the timing and grace that was second nature to his peers. He did not have the natural and instinctive talents of Chaplin and Keaton; he was not raised in the theater, as they were, nor did he have an inherently comic persona, as Chaplin did with his shabby yet fastidious tramp and Keaton with his stoic and sober fatalist. Lloyd was not only smart enough to recognize this, he was determined to overcome it, and so he went about methodically creating a viable comedic identity.
His first step was a common one among comedians of the day: He imitated Chaplin. That is, he appropriated the situations and style of Chaplin, though he did not adopt Chaplin’s costume. Instead, Lloyd inverted the outfit; rather than baggy clothes, he wore clothes that were too tight. And in place of Chaplin’s narrow brush mustache, Lloyd placed two dots of facial hair at either side of the mouth. This was Lonesome Luke, a logical if not inspired creation that Lloyd played in dozens of one-reel comedies.
But imitation was not enough for Lloyd; his ambition was far greater. He would have to find a unique character, one that suited his talents and appearance. Eventually he found his inspiration.
“I saw a dramatic picture at a downtown theater,” Lloyd wrote in his autobiography, An American Comedy. “The central character was a fighting parson, tolerant and peaceful until riled, then a tartar. Glasses emphasized his placidity. The heavy had stolen the girl, carrying her away on horseback. The parson leaped on another horse and the two were lost in a cloud of dust. When the dust cleared, the heavy lay prone and still, while the parson dusted his clothes with careless flecks of his handkerchief, replaced his glasses and resumed his ministerial calm.”
Thus the “glass character,” as Lloyd called him, was born. He would join the pantheon of the elite comedic characters: Chaplin the Tramp; Keaton the Stoic; Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the Fat Man; Harry Langdon, the Man-Child; and Harold Lloyd, the Everyman. With a simple pair of horn-rimmed glasses, purchased for 75 cents, Lloyd set off on a career that would make him the highest-grossing film comedian of the 1920s.
Though the audience could at times identify with the situations and emotions in the work of Keaton and Chaplin, their characters had a strange, almost otherworldly quality. Lloyd, on the other hand, sought a character that was common, easily identifiable, someone the audience could recognize in their own lives.
Film critic Walter Kerr, in his book The Silent Clowns, described the character as an archetype that was prevalent and easily comprehended in its day. “The good American, still devoutly believed in during the 1920s, was two things,” Kerr wrote. “He was aggressive, and he was innocent. Americans could not have tamed a continent if they had not been aggressive … But whatever had been done aggressively, or was being done aggressively, had been and was being done from the noblest motives, motives that had just recently helped make the world safe for democracy. The American’s energy was a virtuous energy, spent always in the cause of good. A vigor that extended to brashness on the one hand; a clear conscience on the other.”
With variations here and there, Lloyd played this character throughout the rest of his career. It was a comic take on the Horatio Alger story, the “American boy who rose from shoe clerk to national hero,” in Kerr’s words.
Lloyd’s craft was as studied as his character. In an effort to keep his output varied and interesting to audiences, he diligently worked at broadening the range of his abilities, mastering all the stock elements of film comedy and even adding a few innovations of his own.
First among these was the chase scene, many of which will be on display in the films featured in the retrospective, from the last-minute heroics of Girl Shy to the herding of criminals and ne’er-do-wells into a church in For Heaven’s Sake. But Lloyd took the medium beyond simple chases, bringing a new twist to film comedy.
Though he only made five of them, Lloyd is still best remembered for what he called his “thrill pictures.” One day, while walking in downtown Los Angeles, he saw a “human fly,” a man climbing a skyscraper as part of a promotional event. Though the thought of seeing the man fall to his death was horrifying, Lloyd couldn’t take his eyes off him. This led to the most famous of all Lloyd films, Safety Last, in which the Lloyd character climbs the face of a building as a promotion for the department store in which he works as a clerk. The climax of the scene finds Lloyd dangling from the face of a clock hundreds of feet above Los Angeles.
Lloyd milked the situation for all it was worth, placing his camera above and to the left of the character so that the street below was always in view, never letting the audience forget the danger. While the gags along the way are not all unique—some, like the mouse in the pant leg, were already clichés at the time—Lloyd was using them in a new context, using fear and suspense to augment the comedy.
You can see the hard work involved; Lloyd is consciously and deliberately exploiting every facet of the situation. This is not an inspired bit of comedy from an intuitive master, but it is well-crafted filmmaking of a high order.
What often distinguished the better comedians was their ability to slow the pace of their films and develop their characters with more thoughtful comedy. In fact, some of Lloyd’s most accomplished work are these quieter moments, where he demonstrates the confidence and skill to dispense with the rapid-fire editing, stunts and chase scenes and simply holds the camera motionless, using long takes that allow both he and his co-stars to display their comedic talents.
Again, For Heaven’s Sake provides an excellent example. In one scene, Lloyd, playing a dandified millionaire playboy, is sitting beside a down-and-out thug. In one continuous take, the two men slowly begin to notice the odor of perfume, each suspecting the other as the source.
Lloyd draws the scene out, holding the camera perfectly still while each man’s face tells the story, slowly registering the presence of the odor, looking quizzically about the room, and then gradually settling upon each other and setting up the payoff as the two men silently evaluate each other.
Another scene simply conveys Harold’s growing affection for the priest’s daughter. As she takes him on a tour of the mission, gesturing at various points of interest, Harold literally can’t take his eyes off her. He sees nothing of the mission; he only sees her. The camera follows them around the room, weaving between chairs and tables, capturing the mad whirl of romance.
It is in these scenes, with the Everyman in everyday situations, that Lloyd is at his best. Here the years of work, study and determination pay off beautifully with simple, genuine scenes from which Lloyd draws simple, genuine comedy.
Like the characters he portrayed, Lloyd reached the top through hard work and perseverance. A reevaluation of his work is long overdue, and hopefully the rediscovery of these films will cement his place as one of the preeminent talents in all of silent film, and one of the most accomplished comedic directors in film history. He deserves that much. He earned it.
Harold Lloys at PFA:
3 p.m., Sunday July 17
3 p.m., Sunday July 24
3 p.m., Sunday July 31
Accompanied on piano by Jon Mirsalis
For Heaven’s Sake
3 p.m., Sunday Aug. 7
San Francisco’s Castro Theater will screen 13 Lloyd features and five short films Aug. 19-25.