Stars of Slapstick #93: Harold Lloyd

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Today is the birthday of Harold Lloyd (1893-1971), often called “the Third Genius of Silent Comedy”, famous for his bespectacled, upbeat “boy in glasses” character and for his “Thrill Comedies”, wherein he would work the nerves of his audiences to a frazzle while he cavorted on the outside of skyscrapers. Lloyd was often Hollywood’s top comedian during the 1920s, and managed to keep his comedy career coasting well into the talking era.

Lloyd did not initially start out to become a comedian, 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 in 1915 to make original comedies of their own (with a brief period of defection during which he worked for Mack Sennett). 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, and those are their own rewards).

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Lonesome Luke

But Lloyd took several years of research and development to arrive at  his famous go-getting “glasses” 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.

After scores and scores of popular comedy shorts , he moved up to features in 1922 with Grandma’s Boy and proceeded to star in another 14 terrific features (with only a couple of clinkers) over the next 16 years (I include his talkies among the tally, because for the most part I consider them as good, or nearly so, as his silents). His best known pictures are Safety Last (1923) with its iconic shot of Harold hanging precariously from a giant clock; and The Freshman (1925) in which Harold wins the big college football game.

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In 1947, Preston Sturges coaxed Lloyd out of retirement to star in a sequel to The Freshman, the under-rated and too-little-known The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (renamed Mad Wednesday for its re-release in 1950). :

For much, much, MUCH more on Harold Lloyd and silent comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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