Harold Lloyd, the Third Genius of American Silent Film

He deserves a place next to Chaplin and Keaton. Israelis will have a chance to see for themselves during this week's retrospective.

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One of the best-known images in cinematic history is the image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the hands of a clock high above a crowded Los Angeles street in the 1923 film “Safety Last!” This image, which portrays comic terror in the developing urban reality of 1920s America, became entrenched in popular culture. References to the iconic clock scene appeared in many films, including “Back to the Future” and Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film “Hugo,” in which part of the scene is shown in a movie theater into which the film’s protagonist sneaks, and later on in the film, the protagonist himself dangles from the hands of clock in order to save himself.

It is a well-known fact of cinema history that Lloyd performed the clock stunt himself, as he performed most of his own stunts throughout his career. “Safety Last” was screened at the recent Haifa Film Festival, and those who missed the chance to see it there will be able to see it on Tuesday night as the opening film of a Lloyd retrospective that will held in the cinematheques until April 12. The retrospective, a partial one, includes eight of Lloyd’s best-known feature films, which were produced between 1922 and 1936, as well as a collection of his short films, which were produced earlier. Comedy film buffs, film aficionados in general who are unfamiliar with Lloyd’s body of work and those who would like to become reacquainted with it are in for an enjoyable experience full of comic brilliance that can only be described as genius.

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are better remembered today than Harold Lloyd, and cinema buffs are in an ongoing debate as to which of them was the best comedian of the silent film era. But this argument does not detract from Lloyd’s importance or his greatness in the history of comic cinema. Lloyd, who was known for the glasses and straw hat he wore in several of his films, presented a different comic essence from that of Chaplin and Keaton. Chaplin portrayed the character of the tramp who did everything he could to survive in the threatening situation around him, while Keaton often played a character whose mechanical and also threatening surroundings aroused in him a constant feeling of amazement. Both Chaplin and Keaton often worked in a reality that was disconnected from the America in which they made their films — such as, for example, Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” and Keaton’s “The General.” In his films, Lloyd worked in the American reality of his own time, playing the next-door neighbor’s son seeking to fulfill the American dream in the social, cultural and economic experience of the United States during the post-World War I era. Lloyd is the incipient American macher, even if his practical talents do not always allow him to fulfill that aspiration. Despite his tendency to fall into various traps, he presented on the screen, at least in his appearance, a more elegant figure than Chaplin or Keaton, and this elegance was part of his attempt to integrate into American society, whose capitalistic foundations came into being after the war.

Some of Lloyd’s films also had a suspense plot whose purpose was to show Lloyd’s talents put to the test, and allow him to escape into the conventional depiction of American masculinity. Even when he got into his biggest scrapes, he always expressed a feeling of unwavering optimism. This optimism, which is the basis of the essence of the American dream, was one of the reasons his audience identified so strongly with him and supported him so much.

Too good-looking to be funny

Lloyd was born in Nebraska in 1893, and after his parents divorced, he went to live with his father. They moved to California, where Lloyd began appearing in vaudeville shows and short comedies produced by Thomas Edison’s production company. He met the producer, director and actor Hal Roach, who established his own studio in 1913, and from 1916 to 1919 he appeared in dozens of comedies produced and directed by Roach (who is remembered today largely because he was the producer of the Laurel and Hardy films). Roach was the one who convinced Lloyd not to imitate his fellow comedians of the period, and instead develop the unique character that he would portray throughout his career. Roach was also the one who convinced Lloyd to wear glasses because, he said, his face was too good-looking for a comic.

The iconic clock scene in 'Safety Last!' Photo by Courtesy

In 1921, Lloyd and Roach began producing full-length films. Their first big success came in 1922, with the suspense comedy “Grandma’s Boy” (which is included in the retrospective). In this film, Lloyd plays a young man forced to participate in searches after a murder. The film established Lloyd as one of the big stars of the period. The partnership between Lloyd and Roach ended in 1924, and Lloyd became his own producer and his films were distributed mostly by Paramount. He is not credited as the director on any of his films. Instead, directors Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor, Ted Wilde, Clyde Bruckman and others were credited, but Lloyd said in interviews that even though they had comic talents, their job in his films was only to follow his orders.

From silent to talking films

Some of Lloyd’s best-known and most successful silent films will be screened at the retrospective, including “Grandma’s Boy,” “Safety Last!”, “The Freshman” (1925), “The Kid Brother” (1927) and “Speedy” (1928). The transition from silent film to sound was difficult for Lloyd, as it was for many other comedians of the silent-film era. “Welcome Danger” (1929), Lloyd’s last silent film (which is not included in the retrospective), includes several talking scenes and was also a big success, but Lloyd slowed the pace of his work, and his sound films were never as successful as his silent films had been. Of them, three will be screened at the retrospective: “Feet First” (1930), “Movie Crazy” (1932) and “The Milky Way” (1936), which was the first time Lloyd worked with an important director, Leo McCarey (another version of the film, made in 1946 and entitled “The Kid from Brooklyn,” starred Danny Kaye).

Lloyd retired from making movies in 1938, produced several films and returned to the screen in 1946, at the invitation of the eccentric millionaire and producer Howard Hughes, to star in the film “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” a film by Preston Sturges, one of the greatest comic directors in cinematic history (“The Lady Eve” and “Sullivan’s Travels”), who was then at a low point in his pothole-strewn career. Lloyd and Sturges claimed that Hughes interfered in the production and cut the film cruelly, and the result was a resounding failure. It was Lloyd’s last film appearance.

Unlike Buster Keaton, who became an alcoholic after the transition to sound and was even forgotten for many years, and Chaplin, who left the United States during the McCarthy era and had his re-entry permit revoked so that he never returned, Lloyd lived out his life in comfort, dying in 1971 at the age of 77. He worked, among other things, with experimental three-dimensional photography (one of his models was the young Marilyn Monroe), and appeared occasionally on radio and television programs. He was even involved in various charitable activities in 1953, and was given a special Academy Award for lifetime achievement and humanitarian work. But Lloyd, who held the rights to his films, did not allow them to be screened in theaters that could not provide them with organ accompaniment, and he opposed their screening with piano accompaniment. As a result, his work and his name were forgotten.

Harold Lloyd with actress and later wife Mildred Davis in 1921. Photo by Orange County Archives

But he had no lack of money. He lived on a luxurious estate, and in time oblivion gave way to reacquaintance with his work, when a film entitled “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy” was screened at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and Lloyd was officially declared the third genius comedian of the silent-film era together with Charlie Chaplin. Lloyd produced a sequel to that film entitled “Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.”

After his death, his films were restored and issued in the 1990s on home video with the help of his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd Hayes (Lloyd was married to the actress Mildred Davis, who appeared alongside him in several of his films from 1923 until her death in 1969) and British silent-film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. All his films were recently re-released on DVD, and there is no more doubt that the world of silent film had three geniuses: Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The partial retrospective that will be screened this week is proof of that.

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