Harold Lloyd’s everyman persona, replete with his too-tight suit and thick-rimmed glasses, made him one of the silent era’s most famous and beloved characters. But what is less well known is that Lloyd was also one of Hollywood’s most astute businessmen.
Long before he landed in movies, his early business savvy was evident. In his book An American Comedy, he describes how, as a young man, he sold bags of popcorn to train patrons: “I bought the corn, bought a stack of sacks at wholesale … made a cut-rate deal with the grocer for butter, and promised my mother a percentage on sales if she would pop the corn.” When Lloyd started as a Hollywood film extra in 1913, he made three dollars a week. Within ten years he was making $1,000 a week and was a year away from making his first independent film. From 1924 to 1934, his company produced ten films that made more than $20 million. By the time Lloyd retired in 1947, he was not only famous, but he was also very rich.
Lloyd’s road to Hollywood began early, in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. “I was possessed from my earliest youth with a definite, violent desire to act that in no way conformed with the rest of my character,” he wrote. His first mentor, John Lane Connor, with the Burwood Stock Company, “went over my performance point by point, as a mechanic goes over a motor, pointing out bad timing, wrong emphasis, and other errors in technique.”
In 1912, when he was 19, Lloyd and his father moved to San Diego, where John Lane Connor was then living. Harold was already skilled enough to teach Shakespeare, fencing, and dancing at Connor’s dramatic school, while at the same time going to high school and performing in school productions. When Connor’s school closed, Lloyd moved to Los Angeles and his father suggested he try the movies. “It seemed a comedown for one who had had experience in the theater, and especially for one whose ambition was as great as mine,” Lloyd wrote. But ambition or not, he needed work. To get a foot in the door, Lloyd sneaked onto the lot of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in Hollywood, using makeup to disguise himself as a working actor.
However, his work as an extra was short-lived. When Universal cut salaries from $5 to $3, Lloyd and another extra, Hal Roach, left. After receiving an inheritance, Roach established the Rolin Film Company at the Pathé Studio. Lloyd joined the company but, in 1915, left over yet another salary dispute. He quickly found work with the legendary Mack Sennett at the Keystone Studio, but Roach succeeded in winning Lloyd back by doubling his salary. At this point in his career, Lloyd may have seen more opportunities for visibility and control with the Rolin Film Company than with the Keystone Studio and famous coworkers like Charlie Chaplin.
At Rolin, Lloyd began to attract a group of actors and crew members who went on to make many films together. Both principal actors Harry “Snub” Pollard and Bebe Daniels joined him in 1915 and ended up making more than 140 films with Lloyd. Other long relationships included supporting actor Noah Young (For Heaven’s Sake), who worked with Lloyd for 15 years; director Fred Newmeyer, who made 13 films with Lloyd; and director Sam Taylor (For Heaven’s Sake), who made seven. Lloyd’s longest working relationship was 17 years with cinematographer Walter Lundin, who was the primary photographer on 99 Lloyd films from Pinched (1917) to The Cat’s Paw (1934).
Over the years, Lloyd worked at developing a trademark character. His first creation was Willy Work, a blatant Chaplin imitation. In 1915, he introduced a new character, Lonesome Luke, another Chaplin clone whose gimmick was tight clothes instead of baggy ones. After two years and more than 60 Lonesome Luke films, Lloyd moved away from imitation and defined his own niche with what he called the “Glasses Character.” The beauty of this character was that he couldn’t be tied to a specific persona — he could be anyone: a prince (His Royal Slyness, 1920), an underdog (The Freshman, 1925), or a sweet romantic (The Kid Brother, 1927).
One secret to Lloyd’s success was his effort to understand audiences. He decided to introduce the “Glasses Character” in one-reel films, while he was making Lonesome Luke two-reel comedies. “If you make a poor or mediocre or even a bad picture in a two-reeler, it will tend to sour the people on you, because they won’t see another for a month.” As early as 1918, Lloyd was screening movie previews. “I think we were one of the very first, even back in the old one-reel days, to start previews … after the audience has seen it, we’re coming back really to go to work and find out what’s wrong with it.”
In 1918, dissatisfied with his salary, Lloyd decided to go straight to Rolin’s parent company Pathé, to negotiate better working terms. His meeting with Pathé’s general manager Paul Brunet resulted in the doubling of Lloyd’s salary to $300 each week, and a guarantee of payment regardless of Rolin’s cash flow.
By the 1920s, Lloyd had perfected another of his techniques for attracting audiences — alternating action and character films. For instance, The Freshman (1925) was a character film which preceded the action packed For Heaven’s Sake (1926). Full of gags and chases, For Heaven’s Sake not only entertained audiences, it also satisfied theater owners. According to a review in Variety, “it is … built to order for the exhibitor. It is full of laughs caused by action, with punch following punch in rapid succession ….” For Heaven’s Sake grossed an amazing $2.5 million dollars, just slightly behind the $2.6 million roaring success of The Freshman (1925).
After nine years of working for Roach, Lloyd wanted total control. He successfully moved away from Rolin in 1924, creating the Harold Lloyd Corporation, and produced films for ten years. After his company stopped making films in 1934, Lloyd produced films for other studios and acted occasionally.
After retiring from filmmaking, Lloyd pursued diverse interests such as 3-D and stereographic photography, leaving a collection of more than 200,000 stereographic slides. He became a Shriner and was later elected to its highest office, Imperial Potentate, in 1949. He also became president of the Shriners Hospital Corporation and served from 1963 until 1971.
Because Lloyd retained the rights to all his films, he was able to reintroduce modern audiences to his earlier work through three compilation films: Harold Lloyd’s Laugh Parade (1951), Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962), and Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life (1963). He also made public appearances at events like the Cannes Film Festival following the release of Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy. His last personal appearance took place in September 1970 at the British Film Institute for a screening of The Kid Brother (1927). Harold Lloyd died seven months later in 1971 at the age of 77.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Chris Elliott on the Mighty Wurlitzer