Silent Film’s Third Genius : Harold Lloyd Put on His Glasses--and Made Film History


He has gone into film history as the Third Genius--third only to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as a master of silent comedy. Harold Lloyd, of the neat suits, horn-rimmed glasses and the kind of flat straw hat called a boater, actually made more films than Chaplin and Keaton combined. But his work has been harder to see than those of the other great silent comics and in consequence Lloyd is probably most easily recognizable to present filmgoers from a single still photograph: The one that shows him hanging perilously from the bending hand of an officetower clock dizzyingly high above Broadway in the downtown L.A. of 1923.

The picture is from his most famous film, “Safety Last,” which he co-wrote with Hal Roach and others, and which is one of the true classics of silent comedy. It features Lloyd’s extraordinary athletic ability, which, along with the middle-class Everyman persona he gradually evolved, is his most distinguishing and memorable characteristic.

In “Safety Last” Lloyd is a small-town lad trying to make it in Los Angeles so he can invite his hometown sweetheart to join and marry him. He is an easily harassed salesclerk (pretending, in a fine series of jokes, to be the store manager when his sweetheart shows up unannounced). He persuades the owners that a human fly stunt will provide the publicity the store sorely needs.


When Lloyd’s pal, the real human fly, is chased off by a cop, Lloyd has to scale the building himself, in a brilliantly sustained and breathtaking sequence. Pigeons attack him, a mouse crawls up his pant-leg while he teeters perilously on one of the ledges, office workers harass him, a flagpole snaps under his weight, a saving rope proves to be unattached, he is knocked silly by a weather vane. Watching it is hard on vertigo sufferers and stomach-tightening for almost everyone.

How he did it has become a little clearer with time. He worked from scaffolds erected on the building’s setbacks. There are intercut shots from ever taller buildings looking down at the ant-like pedestrians far below. A real human fly is seen from afar, actually climbing a building. But even if some trickery was involved, it was terrifically dangerous all the same, with Lloyd working near the edges and risking very nasty falls, from which only an athlete’s grace and balance saved him. It is a film no other silent comedian could have made.

(It is the more impressive to know that Lloyd, posing for publicity shots a few years earlier, had picked up what seemed a prop bomb, which exploded and blew two fingers from one hand. An ingenious flesh-colored glove hid the deformity thereafter but Lloyd did his climbing with only a hand and a half.)

Lloyd was born in Burchard, Neb., near Lincoln, on April 20, 1893, and the centenary observances are about to begin. The Film Forum in New York will screen virtually all of his films, including all the two-reelers he made from 1919 onward. In Lincoln, there’ll be a gala showing of “Safety Last,” with Gaylord Carter from Los Angeles accompanying on the organ and Lloyd’s granddaughter, Sue Lloyd Hayes, in attendance along with Rich Correll, who became the curator of Lloyd’s films while he was still an undergraduate at USC. Lloyd’s birthplace, bought and refurbished by admirers, will be opened as a museum.

In Los Angeles, “Safety Last” will be shown at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Friday, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra playing a full-score accompaniment composed by Carl Davis, who is flying in from London to conduct.

“Safety Last” was a huge success and led to a series of high-danger films that played for very suspenseful comedy, as when Lloyd scampers around and narrowly avoids falling from girders of a building under construction. In another film, he sits in an office chair atop a girder being lifted into place.

He was sitting in the chair planning to commit suicide. He removes a blindfold and, seeing a carved angel on the building’s facade, briefly imagines he has gone to heaven--until he looks down, does a ghastly double-take and realizes he is both alive and imperiled. The suicide motif, treated comically in another film in which he leaps off a bridge into water that is only ankle-deep, is curious, hinting that despair and a keen knowledge of life’s disappointments, were as familiar to him as to Chaplin, though made less of.

Lloyd’s peripatetic father, nicknamed Foxy, was a portrait photographer who kept the family moving in pursuit of his usually unrealized dreams. Lloyd spent his teen-age years in Durango, Colo. At one point, Foxy Lloyd flipped a coin to see if the family should next head East or West. The West won and Foxy Lloyd became a pool-hall proprietor in San Diego. Harold Lloyd found a place with the John Lane Connor acting troupe.

Lloyd made his film debut in San Diego as an extra, painted and wearing a loincloth so as to resemble a Yaqui Indian working as a waiter in a 1912 Edison film called “The Old Monk’s Tale.” (English director Lindsay Anderson found a clip of the scene for a Lloyd documentary he made for Thames Television called “The Third Genius.”)

Lloyd moved north to Los Angeles, where he worked as an extra alongside Hal Roach. When Roach put together his own production company, he hired Lloyd to appear in some two-reel comedies.

As Roach said years later, with some accuracy, Lloyd “wasn’t a comedian but he was one helluva actor. I mean, I got him because he could play a comedian. We never got any place big with him until we put the glasses on.”

Chaplin and his Tramp character were already packing in the customers, and Lloyd’s first attempt at inventing a screen persona was Lonesome Luke, inspired by the Tramp but with calculated differences. Lloyd’s clothes were tight where the Tramp’s were baggy. The more important difference was that Luke had no well-defined or particularly sympathetic personality. The chases and the pratfalls were what mattered and they were grand at their own slam-bang level, minus the identifiable human dimension with which Chaplin infused the Tramp and enlarged the comedy.

At the core of silent comedy were the gags, today a one-liner, maybe a two-liner, but then meaning a visual joke. In the opening scene of “Safety Last,” Lloyd is behind bars with a man in uniform, two weeping women and a minister who leads him away, and with what looks like a noose visible in the background. But the bars are at a train station, the uniformed man is the station master, the minister and the women (sweetheart and prospective mother-in-law) have come to see the lad off to the big city. The noose is a wicker loop used to get messages to passing trains.

Rushing for the train, Lloyd grabs a baby carrier, with a baby in it, instead of his suitcase, swings onto a horse-drawn wagon instead of the train and, in wonderfully speeded-up motion, just does catch up and scramble aboard the last car. Four gags in less time than it takes to describe them.

In comedy as in most fiction, the closer the creators stay in touch with their own personalities, or at least with recognizable common humanity as they have watched it, the better off they are.

Chaplin, eventually one of the richest haves in Hollywood, never forgot his days as a wistful, frustrated, knocked-about have-not. The Tramp was endearing for his wistfulness, but not least because at last he had his sweet if fleeting revenges, delivering those well-deserved kicks in the pants to the arrogant and oppressive--and getting away with it for the delicious moment. The loser was also a survivor.

So with the character (called Harold) that Lloyd evolved. And it may well have been the meekness those owlish glasses implied that brought the Lloyd screen personality into focus, just as Roach said. Glasses on and Luke’s Chaplin-like mustache gone, Lloyd became the nice guy, the addled Everyman, harassed, befuddled and beset, who was also a survivor and could show flashes of fire, courage, defiance and ingenuity.

Like Chaplin, Lloyd was a shrewd businessman who ended up owning all his own films. He made six sound films, the last of which, “Mad Wednesday,” was produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Preston Sturges. (Hughes once complained, says film curator Rich Correll, that Lloyd was the most difficult actor he’d ever worked with. “Nice enough fellow,” Hughes explained, “but he had so much money of his own he didn’t care what I said about anything.”)

“Mad Wednesday” was a flop, and Lloyd realized that his days in the movies were over. Rather than have them released into a tattered afterlife, he put them in three walk-in vaults at his huge Beverly Hills estate (now on the market by a subsequent owner for a reported $39 million). Lloyd left them there for years, until the early 1960s when he put together two superb compilations of film moments: “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy” in 1962 and “Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life” in 1963. Both were rapturously reviewed and commercially successful, a rediscovery of Lloyd’s inventive genius.

Correll, whose father Charles Correll, the Andy of “Amos and Andy,” was Lloyd’s partner in the founding of radio station KMPC, met Lloyd in 1966 and volunteered to organize and catalogue the footage, which had been disordered by the making of the compilations.

“We would sit in the vaults and he’d talk about the making of the films,” Correll says. “He was one of those people who didn’t seem old, ever. He liked young people. He was interested in what young audiences liked. He was a big fan of Danny Kaye and of Jack Lemmon. He loved Lemmon. He was very kind. As a matter of fact he was a lot like his film character, funny and nice.”

By now Lloyd’s energies were going in other directions. He became Imperial Potentate of the Shriners, who support a string of charitable hospitals for crippled children. Lloyd also discovered the stereo still-camera and its three-dimensional images. He invested $2.5 million in his hobby, taking several hundred-thousand sets of stereo slides, including some remarkable pictures of Marilyn Monroe during a cover photo session she was doing with Philippe Halsman of Life magazine. Last year, Lloyd’s granddaughter Sue Hayes published a book of the Monroe and other celebrity stereo portraits (with a pair of glasses in each volume so the pictures could be seen in 3-D).

Hayes often traveled with her grandfather on his speaking trips, and went along on his triumphant homecoming to Nebraska in the mid-'60s. “He would refer to the person on the screen in the third person,” Hayes remembers: “ ‘The glasses character,’ he’d say. He was warm, charming and humble. Rather Victorian in his values. He used to say, ‘It’s easier to be nice.’ In his charity work he tried to put back something into the society that had been so good to him.” Lloyd died in 1971 at age 77.

It’s hard to think of three more dissimilar types than the three geniuses: Chaplin, the poor boy for whom vaudeville was an escape from poverty; Keaton, the second-generation vaudevillian and a melancholy clown with the light-foot grace and timing of a ballet dancer who had an amazing instinct for the possibilities of the camera, and Lloyd, the prototypical small-town American kid who dreamed, like the character he created, of making it big in Los Angeles, and certainly did.

What the three had in common was the blessed ability to make audiences laugh, and care, all at the same time and for all time.

Charles Champlin is the retired arts editor of The Times.