In the 1960s and 1970s, the only exposure to silent films available to most Americans was on syndicated television programs like Fractured Flickers, which played the films at a faster-than-normal speed and featured narration that mocked the films and the actors. The Harold Lloyd Show, which premiered in the 1970s, was a collection of badly edited clips from Lloyd’s silent film career, narrated in similar fashion. Though it was not a widely seen show, and in spite of the poor editing, viewers were entranced by Lloyd’s daredevil antics, slapstick humor, and tenderly awkward romance. For some it was their first exposure to the world of silent film, and the comedy of Harold Lloyd.
Unfortunately, until recently, seeing Lloyd’s complete films has not been easy. Most movie lovers can quickly name their favorite Keaton or Chaplin film, but a person who can even name any of Lloyd’s films is less common. Yet he was one of the biggest stars of the silent era. He made more than 300 films, whose box-office grosses rivaled those of his peers. Lloyd was not only an actor but also a successful businessman and producer, involved in all aspects of filmmaking, constantly refining his craft, always looking for ways to improve his characters and his films. He remained a public figure long after his retirement from the movies and up until his death.
Lloyd began his career with Hal Roach at the Rolin Film Company. He left Roach after a pay dispute to work with Mack Sennett, only to be asked back by Roach at double his salary. His first on-screen character was an obvious Chaplin knock-off given the name Willie Work. Realizing that he needed to please the audience yet stand out, he created Lonesome Luke, yet another variation on The Tramp, but with one crucial difference: Chaplin’s clothing was baggy; Luke’s was tight.
Working with Hal Roach gave Lloyd the freedom to experiment, and he learned how to use the camera for maximum comic effect. After two years of Lonesome Luke comedies, Lloyd invented a brand new persona, beyond imitation. He introduced his “Glasses” or “Glass” character cautiously, in one-reel comedies, while continuing to make Lonesome Luke two-reelers, and he showed his films to preview audiences so he could figure out what made them laugh.
In 1919, Lloyd negotiated a better salary and obtained a contract with Pathé to distribute his Rolin output. He began to try out different film techniques in order to perfect his gag effects. In 1920, he even filmed his own home movies in an early color process. In 1924, he broke away from Rolin completely to form the Harold Lloyd Corporation, which gave him his greatest freedom while still guaranteeing him wide distribution through Pathé, and later Paramount.
1927, the year of The Kid Brother, was the apex of Hollywood’s silent era, and the film is a showcase for Lloyd at the apex of his career. Yet it was a troubled production. The original director was Lewis Milestone, who completed a portion of the filming before a contract dispute with Warner Bros. forced him to abandon the production (Milestone would direct Two Arabian Knights for Howard Hughes, for which he would receive an Academy Award in 1929). Harold Lloyd’s friend and gagman Ted Wilde took over as director but was shortly stricken with pneumonia, and he also had to quit. As a result, Lloyd, who was accustomed to co-directing his films, took the helm for much of the production. In the end, another of Harold’s gagmen, J.A. Howell, was credited with completing the film. Ted Wilde rebounded in 1928, and directed Lloyd’s last silent film Speedy, which earned him an Academy Award nomination (he lost out to Lewis Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights). Wilde died of stroke-related complications in 1929.
Jobyna Ralston, who had been Lloyd’s leading lady in his previous five films, made her sixth and final appearance opposite him in The Kid Brother. She and Lloyd enjoyed working together, and had become good friends, but she had decided to focus on dramatic roles, and they parted amicably.Her timing couldn’t have been worse. Talkies were right around the corner, and she spoke with a lisp. Ralston only made two sound films, then retired.
Lloyd retired from the movies after six talkies. To many this would have been the end of a career, but for Lloyd, it was the start of a new life. He continued to produce films through his company, and he stayed involved in the Hollywood community. One passion was the preservation of his films long before preservation was part of the public consciousness. He understood the historical value of his films, and he was determined to preserve his legacy. He was able to buy the rights to all his films from both Rolin and Pathé, and he built a cold-storage facility to house his negatives. Even though he was well aware of the highly unstable nature of nitrate film, he could not prevent the fire that broke out in his storage vault in 1943, and he lost most of his negatives. His granddaughter later recounted how Lloyd himself almost died that night. Running into the inferno, he grabbed any can that had not yet ignited and threw it out the window. He eventually collapsed from smoke inhalation, and spent several months recuperating. Most of his early shorts were destroyed, including almost all of the Lonesome Luke series.
When television became popular in the 1950s, a mad rush ensued to fill the airwaves. Lloyd did not want his films cut up and interrupted by commercials, and he kept them off the air. He also wouldn’t allow theatrical screenings unless they were accompanied live by the full glory of a theater organ or an orchestra. He wanted audiences to see and enjoy his films, but he also wanted to maintain their integrity. To this end, he traveled with his prints to festivals around the world. In 1955, he assisted with a re-issue of The Freshman, with a new orchestral score.
Despite proper care, age took its toll on Lloyd’s films. He knew that something needed to be done if he wanted future generations to appreciate them. He even taught his granddaughter Suzanne how to take proper care of his films, and they are now preserved at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
After Harold Lloyd died in 1971, Time-Life acquired the distribution rights to his films, and they proceeded to do exactly as he had feared. Pieces of his movies were cut up and strung together with corny music and a redundant narrator, and commercials were added. The Harold Lloyd Show was born.
Lloyd did everything he could to maintain ownership of his films and preserve them intact. Perhaps this very action is what relegated him to relative obscurity among the great silent comics; the films of Keaton and Chaplin have been largely available to the public for many years. Yet, because of Harold’s and Suzanne’s efforts, much of his work survives and can now be seen exactly as he intended: in pristine condition and with appropriate musical accompaniment.
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra