Saturday, 20 April 2013

Harold Lloyd's 120th Birthday

What perhaps could be the most iconic film image from the Silent Era is that of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock on a building several storeys above the ground. That scene is from Safety Last! (1923), a film still regarded as one of the greatest Silent comedies. Critically acclaimed and highly successful at the box office upon its release, Safety Last remains Harold Lloyd's best remembered film in a string of highly memorable films. Indeed, today Harold Lloyd is counted as one of the three great comic actors of the Silent Era, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Harold Lloyd was born 120 years ago today, on 20 April 1893.

Given the success Harold Lloyd had during his career, it is little wonder that he should still be remembered today. He started in Vaudeville as a child and as an adult moved into one reelers. Eventually Mr. Lloyd become partners with actor and director Hal Roach, and the two would prove to be a very effective team. They released several one reelers from 1915 to 1921, and then moved into feature films. While Harold Lloyd had been very successful in one reel comedies. he proved to be a superstar in feature films. Throughout the Twenties Harold Lloyd starred in thirteen features, which grossed over $16 million combined. While he would not see the success that he had in the Twenties, Mr. Lloyd continued to be highly popular in the Thirties. Such film as Movie Crazy (1932) and The Milky Way (1935) did very well at the box office. Unfortunately, as the Thirties wore on Harold Lloyd's popularity declined. Having produced the majority of his own feature films, Professor Beware (1938) would be made by Paramount. By 1947 Harold Lloyd had retired from making films.

Central to Harold Lloyd's success was the character he played in most of  his films, a character generally called the "Glasses" character or, more simply, "Harold." The origins of the "Glasses" character go back to Hal Roach's thought that Harold Lloyd was much too handsome to play comedy without changing his appearance. Starting with "Spit-Ball Sadie" in 1915 Harold Lloyd played Lonesome Luke, a character clearly inspired by Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" character, complete with a moustache, overly tight clothes, and oversized shoes. It was with "Over the Fence," released in September 1917 that Harold Lloyd first played the "Glasses" character, billed in the film as "Ginger, a tailor " Harold Lloyd would not play Lonesome Luke much longer. The character made his last appearance in "We Never Sleep," released in December 1917. Thereafter Harold Lloyd would play the "Glasses" character, or some variation thereof, for the rest of his career.

As Lonesome Luke, Harold Lloyd hid his handsomeness in ill fitting clothes and a moustache. In stark contrast, Harold Lloyd's "Glasses" character looked like a wholly ordinary person one might see on the street, his handsomeness "disguised" only by a pair of heavy, horn rimmed glasses (keep in mind that in the 1910's and Thirties glasses were considered to diminish one's appearance).  This not only set the "Glasses" character apart from Lonesome Luke, but many of the comedy characters of the Teens, whose humour derived from their often unusual appearances and their personal idiosyncrasies. This was true even of such great comedy actors of the era as Charlie Chaplin (in the role of his "Tramp" character) and Laurel & Hardy. Harold Lloyd's "Glasses" character looked wholly ordinary.

It was only not the fact that Harold Lloyd's "Glasses" character looked like an ordinary person that made Mr. Lloyd a success, but the fact that the fact that he behaved much like one as well. What made the "Glasses" character funny was essentially the same thing that allowed for audiences from the 1910's to the 2010's to identify with him. Quite simply, the "Glasses" character was an average person who was constantly trying to better himself. In modern terms one might call him a "self-starter," and one with considerable ambition. For audiences at the time this put the "Glasses" character at odds with the fact that he wore glasses. In the 1910's and the 1920's characters who wore glasses were more often than not timid bookworms with little initiative. This hardly described the "Glasses" character, who could be an outright dynamo when trying to achieve what he wanted. The social class and profession of the "Glasses" character might vary from film to film (he might be rich in one film and poor in the next), but his energy and ambition were consistent throughout his appearances.

This can particularly be seen in what may be Harold Lloyd's best known film, Safety Last! In the film Mr. Lloyd plays a salesclerk at De Vore Department Store. At the same time that he has been letting on to his girlfriend that he is more successful than he actually is, Harold has pretensions to such real life success. To this end he is even willing to climb the twelve storeys of the Bolton Building (in reality the International Savings & Exchange Bank Building in Los Angeles).  Another example of the "Glasses" character's drive to succeed at incredible costs can also be seen in The Freshman (1925), in which college freshman Harold strives to become popular by emulating his movie idol. In his quest for popularity, Harold even tries out for the football team. The "Glasses" character's will to succeed carried over into Harold Lloyd's talkies. In The Milky Way he played mild mannered milkman Burleigh Sullivan, who triumphs against all odds to become a champion boxer.

Of course, the "Glasses" character's desire for success would sometimes result him in performing incredible stunts of the sort for which contemporary comedy actor Buster Keaton was also known. Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock on the Bolton Building in Safety Last! may be the best known of his spectacular stunts, but it was hardly the only one. In the climax of  the short "Never Weaken (1921)" Mr. Lloyd's character (simply called "The Boy) is determined to commit suicide, to the point that he climbs a high-rise construction site. In Girl Shy (1924) Harold hung precariously from the pole of a runaway trolley as he races to stop his beloved from marrying the wrong man. In all Harold Lloyd made only five of what he called his "thrill pictures (the films in which he performed incredible stunts--he used no stuntmen)," but they remain some of his best known films. They also help illustrate how much of a over achiever the "Glasses" character could be.

Many have observed that the characterisation of the "Glasses" character was perfect for the decade of the Twenties, a decade filled with energy and optimism. And optimism lies at the heart of Harold Lloyd's films. Not only is the "Glasses" character determined to succeed, but he seems to discount any possibility of failure.  When obstacles are placed in his way, he faces them not only with bravery, but with a smile as well. While a character who sets out to get what he wants with little concern for failure would certainly appeal to similar people in the Jazz Age, it can also be argued that this also explains why Harold Lloyd's films have remained popular nearly 90 years after they were first made. Very few people can help but root for Harold Lloyd's everyman in horned rimmed glasses. We identify with him and we want him to win in the end. In the end, the fact that Harold Lloyd's "Glasses" character looks wholly ordinary and Mr. Lloyd played him very naturalistically has allowed Harold Lloyd's comedies to be appreciated to this very day when others have been forgotten.


A Long said...

Great article. Love Harold Lloyd! So much fun! I've seen a few of his talkies, thought they were pretty good, too! Thanks!

Aubyn Eli said...

Hi Terence,

I just wanted to let you know that I've nominated you for a Liebster Award at my blog.