Apr. 20, 1893— Harold Lloyd, a comparatively neglected “third genius” in a silent-comedy triumvirate with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was born in a humble, three-room home in Burchard, Neb. It was a far cry from the 44-room mansion on a 16-acre Beverly Hills estate that he built from his earnings as the progenitor of “daredevil comedy.”
You won’t find a Lloyd character making a cute appearance in a TV commercial, as Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” did for IBM in the 1980s. Nor will you see many retrospectives of his work, as Keaton has enjoyed courtesy of worshipful film historians.
It’s a surprise, then, to learn that Lloyd made more films and more money at his height than these now more celebrated contemporaries. And though he never achieved the same level of success in the sound era that he did in the silent period, he took to the talkies with a greater eagerness than Chaplin and Keaton.
Unlike those two stars, Lloyd learned the art of comedy not through vaudeville but on movie sets. Though he started as an extra with Universal Studios and worked for a while with Mack Sennett, his principal early association was with Hal Roach (later, the producer of the films of Laurel and Hardy and the Our Gang comedies).
There he tried several knockoffs of Chaplin’s tramp—“Just Nuts,” “Willie Work,” and “Lonesome Luke”—before, feeling creatively stagnant, he stumbled on the infinitely adaptable figure, though with his own distinct look and style, that would make him famous: “The Boy Next Door” or, more familiarly, the “Glasses Character.”
Benjamin Wright astutely noted three years ago that the transformative effect of Lloyd’s famous horn rims: “For Lloyd, the glasses make him seem common and they also challenge the general perception that men with glasses are more serious and astute, a perception that perhaps helps Lloyd elicit greater laughs.” Or, as the actor marveled: “At a cost of 75 cents they provide a trademark recognized instantly wherever pictures are shown."
Not long after he developed his distinctive persona, however, Lloyd’s career almost ended before it had a chance to really take off. An accident, incurred while posing for a photograph with what he thought was a fake bomb, cost him a thumb and a forefinger. Thereafter he concealed the damage by wearing flesh-colored prosthetic gloves and hiding his right hand whenever photographed.
Perhaps the most famous shot in silent-film history came in Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923), when his character dangled frightening but determinedly from a clock tower high above a heavily-trafficked street. The scene was shot so realistically that many viewers (including critic Walter Kerr, in his otherwise authoritative The Silent Clowns) believed that it was actual.
But Lloyd’s own description, years after the fact, had already divulged, amid its laborious explanation, that an elaborate sequence—i.e., technical tricks—was required to convey the impression:
“We did the final scenes of that climb first. We didn't know what we were going to have for the beginning of it. We hadn't made up the opening and after we found that we had, in our opinion, a very, very good thrill sequence, something that was going to be popular and bring in a few shekels, we went back and figured out what we would do for a beginning, and then worked on up to what we already had.”
The whole thing involved building small three- and four-story buildings on hills, followed by clever editing—and, finally, the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.
Why has Lloyd’s reputation stayed largely in decline while Chaplin and Keaton continue to be remembered? Several explanations, all with a certain amount of plausibility, have been offered over the years:
*Critics wedded to the “auteur” theory do not adequately credit Lloyd as the principal creative force of his films. Lloyd did not particularly care about receiving credits as a director or writer for any of his movies—after all, as head of the company that produced his films, he was intimately involved in the careful shaping of gags. But, in the eyes of some critics, the lack of these additional critics led his overall creative contribution to his movies to be overlooked.
*The limitations of early TV, with their small screens and plethora of commercials, so annoyed Lloyd that he refused use of his films to be shown, thereby limiting exposure to a potential younger generation of fans. As owner of his work, Lloyd feared loss of control in the then-new medium. Not just smaller screens, but incorrect projection speeds and a multitude of commercials ensured that viewers would not be able to appreciate his work under the same conditions as a filmgoer in the 1920s. Eventually he was prevailed upon to release two compilations in the early 1960s: Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy and Harold Lloyd's Funny Side of Life.
*Much of Lloyd’s early work was lost in a fire on his estate. In August 1943, a nitrate fire and explosion destroyed many of the films that Lloyd had bought from their distributor five years before. The loss mortified Lloyd, an early film preservationist. Because many of the lost movies were made before 1919, there has been less chance to analyze the development of his art over time.
*The ever-optimistic nature of Lloyd’s “glasses” character has not been universally embraced by critics who favor the darker undertones in Chaplin and Keaton. “Harold Lloyd—he’s surely the most underrated [comedian] of them all,” observed Orson Welles, his friend and fellow magician. “The intellectuals don’t like the Harold Lloyd character—that middle-class, middle-American, all-American college boy. There’s no obvious poetry to it.” In contrast, Chaplin's critique of capitalism was front and center in Modern Times, and Keaton's triumphs offer onscreen occur as much in spite of as because of his actions--an almost existentialist conception of human beings' ability to shape change.
Lloyd's breathless energy manifested itself not just in the comedies he created at his peak but in the hobbies he pursued afterward: philanthropy, chess, bowling, microscopy, painting, and especially 3-D photography (in his last two decades he took close to 300,000 stereo slides).
"If great comedy must involve something beyond laughter,” critic-novelist James Agee wrote in his influential 1949 essay on silent comedy, “Comedy's Greatest Era,” “Lloyd was not a great comedian. If plain laughter is any criterion — and it is a healthy counter-balance to the other — few people have equalled him, and nobody has ever beaten him."
Most filmgoers don’t even realize that much of what they are watching today originated nearly 100 years ago with Lloyd. Those frenetic Jackie Chan films requiring breathtaking athleticism and comic skill from its star? That, surely, is from the Lloyd template. The romantic comedy involving an average guy winning out against overwhelming odds by sheer manic energy? Part of the Lloyd brand. The names of the titular heroes of the Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber? Harold and Lloyd—duh!!!!
Even Lloyd’s many possessions have shown up on the big screen. Paramount borrowed his Rolls Royce to serve as William Holden’s vehicle of pleasure in Sabrina, and his mansion would be used in The Godfather (1972), Westworld (1973), Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Commando (1985).
“The more trouble you get a man into, the more comedy you get out of him,” Lloyd once noted. In 1953, four years after the failure of his last sound film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Hollywood bestowed an honorary Oscar on the “good citizen” and “beloved Freshman" who had “permanently dislocated the funny bone of America,” Harold Lloyd.