Usually death is nothing to be celebrated. For me when I was a small child, it was discovery. 50 years ago today, Harold Clayton Lloyd passed away at the age of 77 of prostate cancer. Many of you, if not the majority reading this are asking oneself, “Who?” Harold Lloyd in my personal opinion was the greatest silent movie comic, if not the greatest film comic of all time.
Lloyd is often the forgotten giant of silent comedy. Everyone knows the names like Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and even Charlie Chase or Harry Langdon, but to many people aren’t familiar with the name Harold Lloyd. I, of course hope I am wrong.
While many may not recognize the name they almost universally recognize the image of the bespectacled young man hanging desperately onto a clock face on the side of a building in downtown Los Angeles. Some consider it the most iconic and most easily recognized image of not only silent comedy, but also early cinema. The image has been used in marketing over the years for insurance or to “hang on”, etc. It’s from Lloyd’s 1923 classic, “Safety Last”. I’ll embellish more on that later.
As a kid growing up in New York, my day started with Romper Room, Bozo the Clown and later in the day a lot of silent movie shorts as well as cartoons and even Three Stooges shorts. Silent movies were aired a lot because they were cheap to license to the still relatively new medium of TV. Unlike today’s movies and TV shows there were no residual being paid to actors, many of whom died before they became a mainstay of early TV through the ‘60s and early ‘70s. As a child I was fascinated by the fast paced action of silent comedies, especially the Keystone Kops.
When we moved to Chattanooga similar programming was on and my fascination for silent cinema continued. A Friday night tradition for our family was to go to Shakey’s Pizza and then a drive-in movie at the base of Lookout Mountain. I loved Shakey’s. I still miss the place to this day. One of the best thing about Shakey’s was the atmosphere. Unlike regular restaurants with tables and booths, Shakey’s had a couple of long parallel tables that went the length of the building and everyone sat together as if attending a family reunion or company picnic. Against the far wall was a projector screen. On the screen while everyone ate and drank they would play old silent movies and have sing-a-longs. The lyrics were on the screen with a bouncing ball – in a way like an early version of karaoke. Everyone would sing along without a care in the world. It was a fun time indeed. Yet another great experience that endears silent movies to me.
Late one night after the 11 o‘clock news, I stayed up late. Actually, I did that often. I never had a normal bedtime like other kids that my parent enforced and have been a night owl ever since. This particular night a bearded Dick Van Dyke was on TV. I loved Van Dyke as a kid – and still do. I loved his TV show and the movies like “Chitty Chitty Band Bang” and others. He told the world of the passing of Harold Lloyd that day. He was standing at the entrance to Lloyd’s massive estate in Benedict Canyon called “Greenacres” (not to be confused with the sitcom “Green Acres”). Van Dyke told the listening audience that when he entered the estate he was clean shaven, stating that’s how big Lloyd’s mansion was. Indeed, it really was large with 44 rooms, 26 bathrooms, a full size doll house with running water and electric, numerous fountains and a nine-hole golf course and much more. I was impressed – and still am, but I digress.
Van Dyke hosted a retrospect of Lloyd’s films showing clips of a lot of his body of work including the aforementioned “Safety Last”. I, of course being a little kid was sat there in awe as Van Dyke explained about Lloyd’s thrill pictures, that unlike other movies there was no rear projection of a backdrop of the city. Lloyd was actually doing these wild antics on real buildings at real heights. And this was decades before there was such things as CGI. I was blown away. I wanted to know more about this Harold Lloyd that Dick Van Dyke sold me on. However unlike today, this was an era before the internet, YouTube channels and streaming services. The movies weren’t available on tape. (This was also the era before VCRs.) I knew of nowhere to find his movies. The downtown had a couple of his films but they were on 16mm. I had no way of renting them or a projector from the library.
My interest in old movies remained. One night either junior high or high school (I think it was ninth grade), we had a movie night at someone’s house that one of the teachers had organized. They got a few silent movie shorts and one feature length movie. I remember a couple of the movies were Chaplin shorts and a Laurel and Hardy short where they are selling Christmas trees door-to-door. The feature length movie was a sound movie named “Feet First”. Looking around the room I could tell that not many were interested in the movies. Fortunately, this was an era before smartphones and there was nothing to do but watch the show.
I’ll have to admit that the movie was a little plodding at the beginning. It was obvious that it was an early sound movie, in fact, Lloyd’s second. Once I saw him on screen I perked up, but as I just stated, it was a little plodding at the beginning with awkward dialog. By that I mean the words seemed to get in the way. After all, he was a silent clown.
“Feet First” is actually a reworking or perhaps a remake of “Safety Last”. In it Harold tries to impress a girl whom he thinks is the boss’ daughter. He ends up stowing away on a cruise ship. After a series of misadventures on the ship he hides in a mailbag to hide from the ship’s crew that is in pursuit of him. The mailbag gets shipped back to the mainland and ends up being deposited accidently on a painter’s scaffold at the base of a high-rise. The scaffolding gets raised and Harold, not knowing where he is cuts himself out of the bag, ending up holding on for his life as he falls over the side, just barely hanging on. A series of misadventures takes place including one scene that had us all at this party yelling. Trying to get in the building Harold yells to a building maintenance worker for help. The worker lowers an emergency fire hose to Harold, who clings tightly. Instead of reeling Harold up and into safety, he accidently turns on the water and the hose takes off like a wild buck slinging Harold all over the building and up against the wall. Somehow he clings on and eventually gets to the top of the building as he steps into a fight between the two painters, whose scaffolding Harold had been on. One of the painters accidently hits Harold, who trips and falls over the side of the building after tripping over a rope. As he tripped over the rope it gets tangled around his ankle as he freefalls toward the ground below screaming. The rope stops two feet above the ground with Harold safe screaming for his life. A crowd gathers around as he opens his eyes not realizing he was safe at the bottom.
From that night forward I wanted to know everything I could about Harold Lloyd. My friend Scott got me interested in acting the previous year and we both wanted to be movie stars. He’s in Hollywood as I write this with a number of films under his belt. I wanted to be a silent movie comic and wanted to know all about it, film comedy and the history of film.
I went down to the public library and got my first library card and proceeded to the third floor and checked out everything – every book over the next year or so reading all about Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Three Stooges – you name it. I started buying books about all these guys at the book store. Scott even got me as a gift the book, “Moe Howard & The Three Stooges, a book I still have to this day.
Somewhere I ran across a catalog for Blackhawk Films. It was a mail order catalog that came out monthly and you could buy old movies. Everything was available from The Three Stooges, W.C. Fields and others to rare Keystone Kops film shorts all in Super 8 or 16mm. This was still before VCRs were readily available. They had a couple of pages of Harold Lloyd films as well as other silent comics. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I remember you could buy a one-reel comedy for about $7.88 plus shipping and handling. In the late ‘70s that wasn’t much. I got my first job at 15 with the express intent to buy Harold Lloyd movies and other silent comedies. Two-reelers were $13.88 and features were like $22.88 back then. Each week I would religiously order a different movie. The only catch was I didn’t own a projector. Scott had one and while in high school I would spend the night at his house just about every weekend. Each week I would bring a different movie and Scott was nice enough to show them for me. He also had one of those new-fangled VCRs and had a bunch of movies. Scott’s family was well off. His dad was a vice president at American National Bank and supported Scott’s desire to be an actor.
I eventually saved up money and bought my own projector. I had a huge film catalog relatively speaking and still to this day have many of those Super 8 films. Besides Harold Lloyd films I bought Chaplin shorts, Laurel and Hardy silent movies and obscure silent comedies starring Harry “Snub” Pollard. Pollard was Lloyd’s sidekick in many of his early films before he graduated into his own series of two-reel comedies that were quick ingenious. Sometimes Blackhawk would have “grab bag” sales and you would receive various movies never knowing what you would get. I got a few gems in there like the rare Russian silent drama, “Earth”.
When I was a junior in high school I ran a nickelodeon in one of the classrooms during lunch playing my Lloyd, Chaplin – you name it – the silent short I had. I charged a quarter. For the entire year I made one quarter – literally. I was so fanatical I even hosted a Harold Lloyd film festival at Covenant College. My friend Scott once again helped me with it (he had a car, I didn’t). I think a total of eight people showed up for it. There was no one there younger than 70. I was of course crestfallen. I showed a couple of my shorts and finished the night with a showing of “Safety Last”, Lloyd’s most iconic film. After it was over I looked at the near empty auditorium. What was I thinking doing this? I wasted Scott’s time and mine. I wanted everyone to be fanatical about Harold Lloyd as I. As the crowd started to shuffle out one older lady, who was wheelchair bound came over to me with the biggest smile on her face. “Thank you so much for this,” she said. “I haven’t been able to see any of these in over 50 years. Thank you”. Maybe it was worth it after all.
Unlike silent comics like Chaplin, Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle – and my list goes on and on with stars you never heard of from that era, Lloyd’s character was he bespectacled boy next door. He looked like an everyman who ended getting into precarious and very funny situations. He didn’t wear baggy or too tight clothes or fake moustache or goofy hat. He wore a pair of horn-rim glasses with no lenses and a straw boater (a hat popular at the time). He was an ordinary guy who got into inordinately situations. The glasses he wore gave him a passive look ala the boy next door. His character was the poster boy for the Jazz Age and eternal optimism, a true go-getter. One of the reasons he fell out of favor with some film historians was that this go-getter character did not translate well during the Great Depression, whereas the “Little Tramp” and ne’er-do-wells like Laurel and Hardy fit perfect for the times. But during the late teens and into the very early 1930s, hoo-boy, what a ride.
Part of my fascination with Lloyd was the “thrill comedies” that he was associated, “Safety Last” and “Feet First” being prime examples. Of the almost 250 films he made only four featured his antics on a building, five if you consider the ill-advised (and written and produced by someone other than Lloyd or his old crew) “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock”, his last feature.
As I stated earlier what I really liked about these films was the fact there was no trick photography. There was no such thing as a green screen, CGI or any kind of back projection. That always fascinated me about Lloyd. In Chaplin’s 1925 classic “The Gold Rush”, the cabin that Chaplin and Mack Swain is teetering about to go over the side of the mountain with Chaplin clinging on for dear life. Sure, it was exciting, but obvious to me fake.
Of the silent comics out, Buster Keaton was probably the most athletic. I’ve come to enjoy his work later in life and am fascinated as well. Lloyd wasn’t far behind. His comedies that told a story – usually the boy chasing after the girl of his dream was layered in physical comedy, sight gags and eral emotion – all at breakneck speed. Chaplin’s comedies became more plodding and emotional, while Keaton’s were emotionless – after all his nickname was “Stone Face”. Usually his films ended in some kind of climactic chase. In “Hot Water” we have a runaway car full of in-laws. In “Girl Shy” Harold the overly shy guy goes to break up the wedding of the girl he loves in a chase that goes across Los Angeles, commandeering everything from cars, a policeman’s motorcycle and a runaway trolley. He gets there just in time to stop the wedding and take the girl. The ending of “The Graduate” starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft almost mirrors that.
In 1925’s “The Freshman” a naïve Harold goes off the college hoping to be the big man on campus and the exact opposite happens. He thought he made the football team and reality he was the waterboy. With his team trailing late in the game and the team out of reserves and about to be forced to forfeit the game the coach reluctantly allows Harold to play. His adventures and some clever gags take place and without spoiling it for you he ends up scoring the winning touchdown just as time expires and indeed becomes the big man on campus. I could describe some of these scenes better but you can see a lot of these on YouTube. Adam Sandler’s 1998 hit “The Waterboy” ended up with Disney being sued by Lloyd’s estate as they were able to point out 56 different things that were the same in both films. Disney of course has no comment to this day.
His last silent film, 1928’s “Speedy” revolves around an irresponsible guy who loves baseball – anything but work in New York City. His girlfriend’s father owns the last horse-drawn trolley in the city and they are trying to force him out. The trolley has make its round at specific times or it will be shut down. The bad guys that want the trolley steal it and Harold of course saves the day in breakneck speed getting the trolley back and through its route to save the day. Trust me, it’s much more interesting than I described. The movie featured a cameo by Babe Ruth, whom Harold gives a ride to Yankee Stadium in his cab.
Lloyd’s film career started around 1912 as an extra. One of his fellow extras whom he struck up a friendship with was Hal Roach. Roach came into some money and wanted to make films. He hired Lloyd to star in them. At this time in late 1914/early 1915 Chaplin was the rage. All theater owners wanted Chaplin movies or at least a facsimile. There were a ton of “tramp” movies being made with comics basically imitating Chaplin. The best of these was Billy West, whom Chaplin was impressed not only that they looked identical, but also that West was able to mirror all of his moves and idiosyncrasies. Lloyd came up with the initial character of “Willie Work”. Not long after the film “Just Nuts”, Roach ran out of money. Briefly he spent time at Keystone Film appearing in a Fatty Arbuckle comedy and a few others. Roach was able to gather more money and called Lloyd back.
It was at this time that Lloyd created the character “Lonesome Luke”. Unlike Chaplin’s tramp who has oversized clothes, Lonesome Luke had tight clothes and instead of the toothbrush moustache he had two dots on his upper lip for a moustache – basically the opposite of Chaplin.
From 1915 into 1917 Lonesome Luke comedies proved relatively successful. But Lloyd wasn’t happy being just another Chaplin imitator. One evening while at the movies he watched a western about a meek sheriff, who wore glasses. But when the sheriff was pushed he rose to the occasion and became a hero. It gave Lloyd the idea for what would be known as the “glasses character”.
Despite Luke’s success at the box office Roach agreed to let Lloyd try this new character. For the rest of 1917 Lloyd would rotate between Lonesome Luke and the “glasses character”. Beginning with “Over the Fence” and ending with “Professor Beware” Harold Lloyd went on to become the most successful and actually most normal of the screen comics. He is often referred to as one of the three titans of silent comedy.
Lloyd’s films constantly out-grossed both Chaplin and Keaton’s. Of course his output was triple of Chaplin’s. He was the epitome of his onscreen character of small town boy making good. In 1926 his weekly salary was $40,000. To put that into retrospect if you adjust for inflation, by 2021 standards would make his weekly salary $591,145.76. In retrospect, his films were topical and mirrored pop culture. His first “glasses character” film was based on the fanaticism of baseball, “The Freshman” would foresee the fanaticism of not only college life, but also college football. One subtitle described the college as being a school attached to football stadium. Keaton’s own take on college was a full two years later. In that film he addressed baseball’s popularity as well, something Lloyd had done a couple of times going back 10 years. “Speedy” deals with Lloyd’s character being a big baseball fan – most notably the Yankees. Lloyd is even able to get baseball’s biggest star at the time Babe Ruth to have a small part in it. The stories are all universal: Boy meets girl; boy chases girl often through numerous obstacles (fathers, fellow suitors, henchmen) and finally winning the girl and living happily ever after.
And what many except film scholars or fans like myself know, is that Lloyd was the first physically handicapped movie star. An accident in 1919 would change Lloyd’s life forever. While filming the two-reel comedy “Haunted Spooks” he was involved in a horrible accident. The first part of the movie deals with Lloyd’s character losing the girl to a fellow suitor. He then attempts to end it all with no success. First he puts a gun to his head. Pulling the trigger, it turns out to only be a water pistol. Tying a stone around his neck and jumping off a bridge it turns out the water is only about two feet deep. He decides to throw himself in front of a speeding trolley only to have the trolley switch tracks on him. In the meantime, a girl is supposed to inherit a fortune, but she must have a husband and they must live in the house for a specified period of time, otherwise her uncle would inherit everything. Harold is recruited and I’ll let you watch the hilarious results for yourself on YouTube if you are inclined.
To make a long story slight shorter, Lloyd was posing for some publicity photos between takes shooting the movie. In keeping with the beginning of the film, Lloyd picks up a prop bomb and lgiths it and is posing with it trying to light his cigarette. The smoke ended up blocking the shot. As Lloyd lowered the prop bomb from his face it exploded. Somehow a real bomb got mixed up with a group of prop bombs. The explosion ripped the room off the building and Lloyd was hospitalized for months with server burns. He lost his sight initially, which unfortunately was restored. His burns cleared up perfectly with only a slight indistinguishable scar on his face. However, the hand that was holding the bomb was permanently disfigured. The explosion caused him to lose the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
Naturally right-handed, Lloyd had to learn to write with his left. For his films he was able to have a flesh-colored prosthetic glove made with straps that ran up his arm and adhered around his elbow. It gave the illusion of a fully functional hand. If you note in a number of films a year or two after he started making films again – the first, finishing “Haunted Spooks”, you will notice that his character wears gloves, something that wasn’t uncommon for the still Victorian era for men and women. As late as his last short film before making features, 1921’s “Never Weaken”, another of the thrill comedies, Lloyd’s character wears gloves for a majority of the film, something I would have never have paid attention if I had not read his autobiography, “An American Comedy” and every biograph I could find and buy where I learned about the accident.
The fact he was able to perform his own stunts like in “Safety Last” where he is hanging on the face of a clock make it that much more fascinating since he was basically doing all this minus half of his right hand. He never really went public about it. A natural athlete, he became a champion handball player. If you look at his portraits out of his makeup he always has his right hand in his pocket or is always facing the camera from his left side. Whereas today we tend to celebrate or expose and handicap – often for profit or attention, Lloyd chose not to make a big deal about it, something I applaud.
Just like his character in films, he truly was the boy next door. In real life he married his leading lady, Mildred Davis a little over five weeks before “Safety Last” was released and they remained happily married until her death in 1969. Unlike the two contemporaries he is always compared to Lloyd’s life was drama free. Chaplin, by comparison went through a series of wives. To be honest with you had had a history of pedophilia – or at least statutory rape. That was how his second wife, Lita Grey was able to land him. A 35-year-old Chaplin impregnated Grey, who was 15 at the time. Grey’s mother used that as leverage to force their marriage, and provide for the Grey’s family lifestyle. Three of Chaplin’s wives all began relations with the comic actor before hey were 18, the only one of age being Paulette Goddard. She was in her early 20s when hey met. Two of the three underage wives, Chaplin married because they were believed to be pregnant. Chaplin had his visa revoked from returning to America in 1952 after visiting Europe for what was interpreted as being Anti-American sentiment and sympathy towards communism. He never touched American soil again until 1972 when he was awarded an honorary Academy Award.
Chaplin was also involved with a very public paternity case involving a 22-year-old Joan Barry that involved two pregnancies, on in which the court ordered him to pay child support (the first I believe was a miscarriage). It wasn’t long after the trials that he married his last wife Oona O’Neil, who he started dating at age 17 and married at age 18. They remained married until his death in 1977. Even during the duration of their 34-year marriage Chaplin was known to have many affairs.
Buster Keaton on the other hand also had many marriages. He also suffered from alcoholism and was briefly institutionalized. Keaton went from starring in features in the 1920s to be reduced to low-budget film shorts in the ‘30s and early ‘40s. When silent movies became en vogue as part of pop culture due in large part to everyone’s old movies being released for TV broadcast (mostly aimed at stay-at-home children and then college students) Keaton saw a late surge in popularity appearing in small roles until his death in 1966 appearing in episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, “Route 66” and “Burke’s Law”. His last film appearance was released posthumously, “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”. Unlike Lloyd and Chaplin he never was able to save money and was literally forced to work his entire life.
Lloyd received an honorary Academy Award in 1953 for being a “master comedian and good citizen”, the latter a slap at Chaplin who a year earlier was banned from American soil for his politics.
Lloyd kept busy in his post film heyday with many projects and became an astute photography, most notably 3D photography. He saw his films regain popularity thanks to a retrospect of his work being released, with others to follow that he worked on as well. He died without much fanfare on this day March 8, 50 years ago and thanks to Dick Van Dyke and my staying up past my bedtime I discovered this hidden jewel. For that I will always thank Mr. Van Dyke and to Harold Lloyd thank yo for making me and millions of others or the past century laugh. I could go on and on, but I might bore you. Do yourself a favor and watch any of his old movies readily available on outlets like YouTube. They are worth it just from a historical perspective. Hooray for Harold Lloyd.
– Dave Weinthal