Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's superb documentary on Harold Lloyd is subtitled The Third Genius, and that's still the best description of this great silent clown. Chaplin, the consummate if sentimental performer-artist remains untouchable, and his films are still regarded as among the best ever made. Keaton, after years of hardship, was rediscovered in the early-1960s, and his stock continues to rise four decades after his death. But Harold Lloyd, equally popular in his day, is mostly forgotten. He toured the country with his films to some success in the 1960s as well, but since then about the only real exposure Lloyd's films have had beyond the Brownlow-Gill documentary was on PBS in the 1970s, when they were packaged with a catchy little theme song: "Hooray for Harold Lloyd! . . . A pair of glasses and a smile!" [Reader Jeff Nelson adds "Stuart...just thought you might perhaps want to consider amending your
excellent review to note that all of Harold's feature films, silent and sound, and many of his shorts have been repeatedly shown restored and intact on Turner Classic Movies within the last couple of years. That finally remedies the
broadcast injustice of the '70s PBS series Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy,
although to be fair, without this series I never would have been introduced to Harold as a child." I have to admit to not having cable the past 10 years; I was too busy watching laserdiscs and DVDs!]
When Lloyd is remembered, it's usually for the iconic image of him clinging to the giant hands of clock atop a high-rise building. But thrill comedy represented just a tiny fraction of Lloyd's output. Mostly, he came to represent the can-do ambitiousness of the 1920s, those wild pre-Depression years when an average Joe with a little money could make a killing buying land in Florida or several fortunes playing the Stock Market.
Years ago, this reviewer's father used to advise his unemployed son to walk down to the corner hardware store, to pick up a broom and start sweeping. Surely, he argued, that after seeing such initiative the owner of the hardware store would be so impressed he'd offer employment then and there. Although such reasoning seems, well, quaint in today's job market, that pretty much sums up the attitude of the typical Harold Lloyd comedy.
In an era of comic grotesques, Lloyd's "glasses character" was singularly human; he was a character audiences could easily recognize and identify with. Go-getter Harold was typically a young, moderately handsome man in his twenties trying to find his way in the white collar world, the original man in the gray flannel suit. He was usually courting a young, virginal type in the Mary Pickford mold; in early films it was often Bebe Daniels and later on Mildred Davis. There was always a pushy rival for the ingenue's affections, usually someone superficially more successful and confident, but Harold always won out in the end.
Lloyd's films have been conspicuously absent from home video in general and DVD in particular. Now Kino, in a package of titles produced by Lobster Films under the "Slapstick Symposium" banner and entitled The Harold Lloyd Collection, has compiled nearly three-and-a-half hours of prime comedy. The films represent a narrow range in Lloyd's career, 1918-1922, when the star made his last short subjects and first feature films. It's unclear why these were chosen over better-known pictures like Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925); it may be that those titles are controlled by the Lloyd estate, which isn't credited here. In any case, these films -- one feature and six shorts -- are all very good and representative: one can trace the transformation of his screen persona from brash comic to ingratiating everyman.
Grandma's Boy (1922) Lloyd's second feature is a very funny parody of romantic and Civil War melodramas popular at the time, specifically targeting The Coward (1915). Lloyd plays a meek man in love with a young woman (Mildred Davis, whom Lloyd married in real life the following year) but who must contend with bully / rival Charles Stevenson. Mild-mannered Lloyd is inspired by his grandmother's stories of his Confederate soldier grandfather (also Lloyd), whose own cowardice is overcome thanks to a talisman, "the charm of Zuni." The film features one of Lloyd's all-time funniest sequences, in which mothballs are mistaken for candy. Harold and Stevenson smile grimly at Davis, pretending to enjoy it and openly appalled when her back is turned. The modern story features Dick Sutherland, an acromegalic, as a vicious homeless bum. The anti-vagrant plotline was common in films well into the Great Depression, and has an unseemly paranoia about it.
Number, Please? (1920) Lloyd's films were notable for their production inventiveness and this is no exception. Filmed at the Venice Beach boardwalk, the short opens with Lloyd in the rear car of a roller coaster. An amusing gag follows in which ladies hats and even a toupee are blown in Lloyd's direction. The short makes excellent use of real locations, and offers cute support from "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison. Producer Hal Roach reportedly appears unbilled as a sailor.
I Do (1918) This short is listed as a 1921 release in the IMDB, but a newspaper Lloyd holds at one point has a banner headline reading "Germany Invaded!" suggesting it was made several years earlier. The short finds Lloyd newly-married to wife Mildred Davis and taking care of a nest of unruly children, one of whom strolls down to the corner store to buy fireworks! It also has another anti-vagrant subplot and tried-and-true old dark house gags. Perhaps most notably it opens with some rudimentary cell animation, unusual for such films. Unlike the other shorts in this series, this one has singularly annoying musical accompaniment. The attention-grabbing, avant-garde score might be appropriate to a Jan Svankmajer short, but seems completely out of place in a Harold Lloyd comedy.
Neighbours (1919) Though billed as Just Neighbors, the onscreen title of this amusing short is as listed above. Lloyd and Bebe Daniels (later famous with husband Ben Lyon for their long-running British radio and TV series, Life with the Lyons) are a young married couple at odds with neighbor Snub Pollard and his wife. Daniels and Australian Pollard appeared with Lloyd in more than 100 shorts from about 1914, making them a team in all but name. These earlier shorts are more in the Mack Sennett tradition than the post-1920 ones, but as such are full of well-timed gags.
Are Crooks Dishonest? (1918) This funny, knockabout short atypically casts Lloyd and Snub Pollard (here billed as Harry Pollard) as grifters out-grifted by fake medium Bebe Daniels. This comedy has some interesting production design in the form of Daniels's contraption-filled "mystic temple," including secret panels and a smoking mummy, plus the unique opportunity to see the walrus-mustached Pollard in drag. There are a lot of close-ups of Lloyd's hands in this one, prior to the on-set accident in 1920 when a prop bomb unexpectedly exploded and Lloyd lost a thumb and a forefinger.
His Royal Slyness (1922) Set, according to the inter-titles, in the "Kingdom of Thermosa, adjoining the Isle of Roquefort and the coast of Razzamatazz," where American salesman Lloyd does a Mark Twain with a look-alike prince. This lavish short had audiences seeing double as the film eschews the standard use of split-screens and other trickery by casting Harold's brother Gaylord as the real prince -- their resemblance is so uncanny that it's really hard to tell them apart, even when they're in the same shot! (The only other instance this reviewer can recall done as well was for an episode of TV's Maude, which used twin brothers.)
Bumping Into Broadway (1918) Los Angeles unconvincingly stands in for Manhattan in this typical short, which finds aspiring playwright Lloyd and struggling dancer Bebe Daniels overdue on their rent. According to their eviction notices each owes $3.75 (!). Longtime Roach regular Noah Young plays the building's burly bouncer, while Snub Pollard has a minor role as the stage manager of Daniels's Broadway musical.
An Eastern Westerner (1922) From Roaring Twenties parties to surefire Western genre gags, this short finds playboy Harold shipped out to his uncle's ranch in Piute Pass, where he faces a Klan-like lynch mob and goes through the usual cowboy gags while romancing Mildred Davis. Along with most of the other shorts in this series, An Eastern Westerner features titles by H.M. "Beanie" Walker, who later wrote the titles for Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chase comedies, among others.
Video & Audio
Given that the films in this collection are at least 80 years old, all are in reasonably good shape. Unsurprisingly, those from the early-1920s look somewhat better overall than those from the late-teens. The quality of source material varies from reel-to-reel (as with Number, Please?, whose first reel is in better shape than its second), and sometimes from shot-to-shot. There is no tinting or toning to the material at all. Generally though, this is a solid presentation, with comparatively little nitrate damage and, despite the cramming of so material onto a single-sided disc, not too much digital artifacting. Each film, including all the shorts, has several chapter stops. A big concern for silent historians is the film's speed, the number of frames-per-second. Too often silent movies are projected faster than intended, giving them a built-in comical look. All the shorts here seem properly projected; this might also account for the frequent blurriness when the image is still-framed. The musical accompaniment is modest, often a single piano (or small ensemble, possibly synthesized), but except for that annoying score which accompanies Number Please, the music sounds very clean and doesn't get in the way of the visuals.
The only extra, unfortunately, is a well chosen but fairly meager Photo Gallery. Background on individual films would have been a major plus.
Part of the reason Harold Lloyd is generally forgotten compared with Chaplin and Keaton may have to do with the fact that Lloyd was less the auteur of his films than the other two, with Lloyd functioning more as an associate producer on his picture than a writer-director. But Lloyd was savvy enough to hire the best gag men and production people in the business, resulting in films just as funny and, in some respects, more polished. Lloyd's films, like his onscreen character, are likeable and lighthearted, perfect escapist films that still hold up well today.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.