Behind the Laughter

Kenneth Turan is film critic for The Times.

He will always be the third man, fated to spend eternity behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as the last of silent film comedy's holy trinity. Still, that doesn't mean that Harold Lloyd's profile couldn't be raised a bit, which is what co-authors Jeffrey Vance ("Buster Keaton Remembered") and Suzanne Lloyd, the star's granddaughter, aim to do with this handsome volume.

The man Orson Welles called "the most underrated comedian of them all" made more than 200 comedies over a 34-year career, including classic 1920s features like "Safety Last!," "The Freshman" and "Speedy." The popularity of Lloyd's horn-rimmed, go-getting Everyman, as well as the actor's business acumen, made him the wealthiest of the silent clowns, able to finance his own films and build Greenacres, a 44-room, 32,000-square-foot Italian Renaissance villa in Benedict Canyon. His control of his material has made this an especially beautiful book; nearly 3,000 original nitrate still negatives exist, and most of the pictures reproduced are first-generation images.

Nor does "Harold Lloyd" shy away from being honest about its subject's personal life, noting his chronic infidelities and his numerous superstitions (not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk was only one). But most of the focus is on his features, especially thrill comedies like "Safety Last!," the source of one of the most iconic images in all of silent history: Lloyd precariously hanging from the hands of a clock high above downtown Los Angeles. Like that tenacious character, Lloyd succeeded by act of will as much as by anything else. A hard-working perfectionist who employed numerous gag writers and was one of the pioneers in testing films, Lloyd, said producer Hal Roach, a longtime friend and collaborator, "was not a comedian. He was the best actor I ever saw being a comedian."

How well he did will be visible when Lloyd's features--digitally restored and rescored--are rebroadcast on Turner Classic Movies in May and take over the screen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art during the summer. If, as Kevin Brownlow says in the introduction, Lloyd "has been treated shabbily by history," he's getting his moment now.

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