Harold Lloyd

In recent months, I’ve managed to profile just about all of the top silent comedy stars on this blog: Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle, Larry Semon, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard,  Lupino Lane and many others. One name that ought to be on that list has been missing. It has been missing for a very good reason. I did not set out to profile silent comedy stars — that is merely a fortunate outcome. I have been profiling vaudevillians. Harold Lloyd’s name is missing from  that list because alone of all that bunch, he was never in vaudeville.

He was born on this day in 1893. For details on his early life (at least such as he was willing to give), see his wonderful autobiography An American Comedy. The salient point here is that he did not start out to become a comedian (hence no vaudeville) but an actor. After a few years doing theatre with amateur and stock companies, he broke into pictures as an extra before teaming up with Hal Roach to make their own comedies. Lloyd eventually became one of the funniest men in silents (indeed, the movies of his maturity make me laugh more frequently and harder than the more cerebral Chaplin or Keaton. The latter two of course have pathos, beauty and awe to their additional credit, however). But Lloyd took several years of research and development to arrive at  his famous character (discarding two previous characters, Willie Work and  Lonesome Luke, along the way), and then employing a company of gag-writers and other cinema professionals to make his machine hum, anticipating the Hollywood studio system in way that both Chaplin and Keaton took great pains to avoid.

If you’re lucky enough not to be at work this morning, TCM is having a little half-hearted film festival in honor of the day. The only Harold Lloyd movie everyone has already seen Safety Last (1923) is on 7:15am, but that’s early and, like I said, you’ve already seen it. I said, “You’ve seen it.” Get me?

But here are my thoughts on their other three offerings….

8:30am: Girl Shy (1924)

Girl Shy’s climax is possibly the best ever in any Hollywood movie.

Harold is the shyest young man ever, can’t talk to women at all, and stutters. Meanwhile, he writes a “how to” manual for prospective Lotharios, using his own “experience” as a guideline. It gets published –as humor – and Harold is humiliated. Meanwhile, he really loves a girl he has met, but he is poor and she is rich. Thinking it is hopeless, he pretends to be like the character in his book, and dumps her. She is heartbroken and about to marry some other turkey.

Then the big climax—one of the best most exciting ones in all cinema. It’s actually better than the one in The Graduate, which I suspect was inspired by this movie. Everything goes wrong as Harold speeds to the church. He ends up taking every known form of transportation and something goes wrong in all of them. He steals about a dozen conveyances. Then he makes it to the altar in the nick of time and –as he always does—seizes the girl of his dreams as though he were a caveman…doing what comes natural. Driven to an orgy of manhood, a beast…Girl Shy No More.

10am: The Freshman (1925)

Ranks with Safety Last as Lloyd’s most famous, definitive statement. Harold is going to college—paying his own way, saved up his money.  So excited, learns school cheers, bases his behavior on fictional characters in college stories and movies. Learns a little jig with a handshake: “I’m just a regular fellow, step on up and call me “Speedy!”

It’s hard for me not to find the character’s primary goal—belonging, conformity—somewhat contemptible. But it matters so much to Harold, and he is such a schlub, that you can’t help having sympathy. His social gaffes are mortifying. When he gets to college, the kids ride him. They trick him into stealing the dean’s car and into making a speech in front of an assembly. They mock him, pretend to be his friends, let him treat them to ice cream. He goes out for the football team. They make him the tackle dummy!

His girl learns they have been making fun of him and tells him so. He puts on a brave face at first and then cries, and we cant help feeling for him. “Make them like you for what you really are,” she advises. This message would have redeemed the film morally….but then it gets abandoned, because what ends up happening is Harold redeems himself by…winning the big football game. So many team mates are injured the coach has to put Harold in, and he wins through sheer determination. Tenaciousness wins the day. But seems to me he’s gotten everyone to like him on their terms.

11:30am Welcome Danger (1929)

There are two versions of this movie, and I’m not sure which one they are showing. One is an all silent, the other (the one that that was released), is sort of half-converted to a talkie. The original silent one works better.

This is a great Lloyd plot.

San Francisco. Lloyd arrives in town and we learn he is the son of a deceased and legendary police captain. He keeps accidentally doing  the right thing, (like catching a crook with an exploding light bulb) so he impresses the cops at the station house at first. Then he falls in love with fingerprinting, and they decide he is a fool and haze him.

Charles Middleton, one of my favorite character actors, is the villain. By day he is an important reform politician, by night he leads an underground Chinatown gang. Lloyd learns the truth when he compares fingerprints, but no one believes him. It is up to him to catch the guy himself…which he does.

P.S. If you get a chance, check out Harold Lloyd’s talkies sometime. They run them occasionally on TCM, and are also available on the recent Harold Lloyd boxed set.  Unlike much of Keaton’s sound work, none of these films are what I would call out-and-out “bad”, but they are often “strange” and “off”. His biggest miscalculation (easy to see in hindsight) was to assume that Depression era audiences would still identify with his Horatio Alger inspired go-getter character, striving to climb to the top of that office tower, to literally hold onto the time-clock for dear life. Those values were identified with the crash that now left 25% of the country out of work. By the late 30s, Lloyd was out of pictures. He went on to do radio for a time, and later to experiment with photography, including a somewhat disturbing series of girlie pictures for men’s magazines. (Harold Lloyd taking girlie pictures is just WRONG). He passed away in 1971.


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