Hooray for Harold Lloyd: 100 Years of Silent Comedy
Guest writer Lisa Roberts posts her first entry here on this classic film website. With her robust appreciation of one of the screen’s most loved comedians, I hope we see more of her writing here, and often.
This year marks two important anniversaries for silent film. The first is that it is one hundred years since silent comedian Harold Lloyd made his first ever film appearance, and the second is that it is ninety years since Lloyd’s most famous and world-renowned feature film, Safety Last! was released. In honor of these two dates, we’re going to take a trip down memory lane to see exactly what made him such an enduring legend and why this film is such a universal joy for family members of all ages.
Harold Lloyd died in 1971 and when he did his films more or less faded into obscurity (unlike those of Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy). However, he left behind a body of work, which is equally unsurpassed in terms of both silent and modern talkie films. Lloyd made his first film appearance in a silent one-reeler called The Old Monk’s Tale in 1913. No footage exists online, though the original film is still in existence in archives. It really was a “blink and you’ll miss his cameo”. He had a very small walk on role in the background, and unless it was pointed out to you it was him you’d be forgiven for not realizing. It was so far removed from what he would develop as his famous persona, "The Glasses Character" that didn’t come into being until the 1920s.
Safety Last! Many people think they don’t know this movie, but when they’re shown either the most iconic still shot from the film or the scene itself, it turns out they DO remember after all! It is most often known as “the clock film”, referring to the famous moments in which Lloyd’s character climbs unaided up the wall of a department store and ends up hanging by his fingertips from the giant timepiece on the side of the building. The basic premise of the story is that Lloyd’s character needs to find a decent job so he can marry his girlfriend (played here by Lloyd’s real life wife, Mildred Davis).
Lloyd starts working at a department store. In order to prove he is doing much better than he is, he sends her expensive presents, which he can’t afford. Thinking that their future is made, she turns up unexpectedly to see him at his place of work and he has to pretend he is the general manager of the store. She accidentally leaves her purse behind in the manager’s office and when Harold goes to pick it up, he overhears the real manager of the store saying that he would gladly give $1000 to anyone who could drum up some more business for the shop.
Harold remembers a friend of his, Bill, who managed to escape trouble with the police by climbing up the side of a high building. He approaches him and Bill agrees to do the climb in exchange for $500. The event becomes public knowledge and a large crowd gathers to see it. However, a policeman who has been on the lookout for Bill realizes that it is him who is going to do the climb. A quick switch has to take place with Harold and Bill agreeing that the former will start to climb the building with Bill taking over half way. However, as the film comes to its climax, you realize that isn’t what is going to happen and chaos ensues.
For the era, this was quite a lengthy feature, especially as cinema goers were used to seeing short one or two-reeler films that would be over in twenty or thirty minutes. Lloyd was intent on trying to not only flesh out stories and spread them over longer time frames, but to also give a real sense of character and place within his movies. Of course, this was something that Chaplin and Keaton did too, and did very well. These men paved the way for modern full-length features, with complex plots, huge storylines and big budgets. Safety Last! by today’s standards is still a relatively short film, but the stunts and action within it more than stand up against any action movie of today – more so when you consider the fact that all the end scenes were done without the aid of CGI and relied solely on clever camera trickery.
A final, interesting fact about the film, and indeed many of Lloyd’s later works is that he performed many of his stunts with a crippling disability, which he managed to hide. Many years before, when he was on the set of a film trying to work out a stunt which involved him lighting a cigarette with a hastily made “prop bomb” he had an accident. When he went to perform the stunt, he put the cigarette in his mouth, lit the bomb and…it unexpectedly went off early. Lloyd lost his thumb in the accident and spent many months in recovery thinking he would never work again. He decided to try by having a set of prosthetic gloves made which would cover his problem up, and would mean no-one would be any the wiser. When you see him hanging off the clock face he’s actually only doing it with one properly working hand. That makes a pretty amazing stunt all the more unbelievable!