The good American

Harold Lloyd was the 'third genius' of silent cinema, a happy-go-lucky, bespectacled innocent audiences loved to love. Then critical authority caught up with him and that was that: he was written out of the script of history. Yet all of a sudden, says Aaron Hicklin, Lloyd is enjoying a renaissance in the States. And Hollywood is even remaking his most famous movie...
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The Independent Culture

Suzanne Lloyd is on the phone. She is telling me to try Jude Law, to try Johnny Depp. "Johnny based his glasses on Harold," she says. Her tone is warm, familiar. She thinks she can get hold of Robert Wagner for me, and maybe Debbie Reynolds. And have I tried John Lithgow? He was a huge fan. "So many were," she says. "He taught Cary Grant how to play that part in Bringing up Baby, he used to help Tyrone Power." She offers a few memories of her own: playing in Mary Pickford's yard; travelling Europe with King Vidor; answering the phone to Cary Grant as a child. "I remember going over to Samuel Goldwyn's studio when I was eight years old, to watch Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy," she says. "It was funny because the image of the young man on the screen was not really my dad, so I couldn't put the two together, but now that's my job - putting it all together."

That young man on the screen? A milquetoast bespectacled nerd, rather aimlessly going about his business, and being tripped up by countless hurdles along the way. Grandma's Boy, his first five-reel film - in which a self-confessed coward learns courage from his grandmother, single-handedly catches a murderous vagrant, whips the bully who has tormented him all his life, and wins the hand of the girl he loves - created an enduring cinematic archetype: funny man as romantic hero. Chaplin rarely got the girl, and Keaton never wanted her, but Harold Lloyd hardly ever failed.

For all his popular appeal, however (his box office takings outstripped any of his contemporaries bar Chaplin), Lloyd's comic talents rarely got serious attention from the critics. Orson Welles considered him the "most under-rated comedian of them all," a victim of film snobs who didn't appreciate his technical brilliance. "The intellectuals don't like the Harold Lloyd character - that middle-class, middle-American, all-American college boy," he said in a 1969 interview. "There's no obvious poetry to it."

If you were growing up in the 1980s you might remember Lloyd from the graveyard slot on BBC2, after the children's programmes, and before the evening news. The idea of children voluntarily watching silent movies made 60 years earlier was somehow not quite the stretch it would be today. In any case, Lloyd wasn't difficult for kids. Neither as maudlin as Chaplin, nor as inscrutable as Keaton, his characters were perennially suffering the growing pains of early adulthood: a chronically square student out to prove himself in The Freshman; a baseball fanatic unable to hold down a job in Speedy; a stuttering tailor's apprentice desperate to stop the girl of his dreams marrying the wrong man in Girl Shy. He was, in the truest sense of the word, an everyman whose private humiliations and ultimate triumphs belonged as much to his audience as to himself.

It was the glasses that did it. Without them Harold Lloyd was lost to the crowd; with them he was a decent, naive, go-getting American of the kind currently eclipsed by a less edifying national caricature. "There is more magic in a pair of horn-rimmed glasses than the opticians dreamed of," he once wrote. "With them I am Harold Lloyd; without them a private citizen." Other elements were involved - the straw boater, the neat, slicked-back hair, the tendency to be looking in one direction while his body travelled in another - but the lens-less spectacles were his trademark, a conduit to his soul. He never took them off, not in the swimming pool, not in the boxing ring, not even in bed. They made him ordinary in a way that his contemporaries - Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin - were not. He had tried "abnormal" in earlier incarnations, as Willie Work and Lonesome Luke, but after a long period of trial and error he found his forte playing, essentially, an exaggerated version of himself. Walter Kerr, in his book, The Silent Clowns, said it best: "Unable to create for himself an outsized figure sufficiently bizarre and ambivalent to function as myth, Lloyd fell, almost without thinking, and because of who and what he was, into a myth that already existed: the myth of the good American."

That myth was in its ascendancy as the Twenties began, when every American thought he would get rich, and what you might call exceptionalism was considered a national birthright. To be an American was to want to succeed for only the best of intentions and the noblest of causes: to make the world a better place. President Woodrow Wilson might have been speaking of Lloyd's newly hatched alter ego when he said, in 1919, "Sometimes people call me an idealist - well, that is the way I know I am an American."

It may be mere coincidence, but at the very moment when the myth of the good American is in sore need of rehabilitation, a Harold Lloyd renaissance is in full bud after decades during which his reputation has teetered on the brink of oblivion: last month Sony Pictures announced - improbable as it sounded - that it was remaking his best known movie, Safety Last!, in which Lloyd famously dangles from a giant clock high above a traffic-filled street, widely acknowledged as one of silent cinema's most iconic images. (We don't yet know who will direct the film or who will play Harold Lloyd himself.)

Separately, the studio acquired rights to Lloyd's shorts and features, marking the first comprehensive deal for Lloyd's work in more than 30 years. Several will be given cinema releases this spring, complete with new orchestral scores, starting at New York's Film Forum in April. Many more will be released on DVD, in another deal with New Line, again with brand new scores.

The architect of all this is Suzanne Lloyd, Harold's granddaughter, who was raised by the comedian and his wife, Mildred Davis, and entrusted to keep the flame burning after Harold's death in 1971.

It has been a slow burn. For a long time the movies were tied up in red tape, or licensed in various deals that didn't do them justice. Lloyd himself had resisted selling the rights to television because the price wasn't high enough; consequently his reputation waned even while his peers where being rediscovered by successive generations. It didn't help that Lloyd invariably came third whenever critics took to comparing him to Chaplin and Keaton. An otherwise flattering documentary for Thames Television in 1989 may not have intended to slight Lloyd by anointing him "The Third Genius", but the label seems to have stuck.

Lloyd's appeal, however, rests on other factors. "He was a brilliant comic constructionist," says veteran director Peter Bogdanovich, who met Lloyd in the late Sixties, and later filmed a scene on his Beverley Hills estate, Greenacres. "He didn't have the savage quality that Chaplin had, or the calm that Keaton projected, but he reflected something that was very open, very American, which speaks very clearly to why he was so extraordinarily popular."

Keith Bunin, the screenwriter for the remake of Safety Last!, thinks a more appropriate comparison is with Jacques Tati. "In their movies there's a real sense of, 'How do I get by in this crazy world?'. And I think what Lloyd worked out was a way to be as crazy and slapsticky and aggressive as possible while retaining a genuine, but not treacly, open-heartedness." That balance is key to Bunin's script, a "remake" only in the loosest sense since Lloyd never worked from scripts until sound forced him to talk (characteristically, he embraced talkies much faster than either Chaplin or Keaton, and with better results). "What's fun about that project," Bunin says, "is to take this incredibly optimistic, energetic, go-getting guy and put that person in a contemporary setting that's more technologically advanced, but which is just as confusing. Sometimes just living in the city is like being in a Harold Lloyd movie because there are so many obstacles put in your path, so the movie is for everyone who is trying to have a decent life, get a job, get a girl, in a world that's very, very chaotic."

According to those who knew him, Lloyd's eternally sunny disposition was sincere, but you have to wonder if he wasn't just as good an actor off-screen as on. He liked to compare his childhood to Tom Sawyer, but the outline is more Dickens than Mark Twain.

Born into poverty in Nebraska in 1893, his parents sound like stock characters from one of his comedies: his alcoholic father, Foxy, was chronically incapable of keeping down a job; his mother, Elizabeth (but known as Bam) was domineering and callous. When they separated in 1910, Harold stuck by his father, then flush with $3,000 in damages after being hit by a drunk driver, and the two moved to San Diego after tossing a coin for it (heads would have sent them to New York). There, Lloyd enrolled at a local acting school; Foxy opened a pool hall and lunch counter with inevitable results: it folded within a few years. Harold wound up living in a tent, before heading to Los Angeles with an idea to entertain kids as a magician.

In Hollywood, Lloyd had the good fortune to befriend Hal Roach when the two worked together as extras. Roach would go on to become one of Hollywood's legendary producers, responsible for Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase, among others, but only after he persuaded Lloyd to try his hand at comedy. It was not, at first, a natural fit. Lloyd had ambitions for serious drama, and his early incarnations were variations on Chaplin; only after he hit upon what he called his "Glass Character" did his comedic personality gel. It had taken at least 70 short films to get there; it would take at least 20 more to perfect.

Lloyd's apex was the Twenties, and many critics have suggested that his association with the Jazz Age rebounded on him in the Thirties by which time the opportunistic values of the previous generation had come to seem shallow. But Lloyd had a longer period in the sun than many stars can expect, and his movies were still making money well into the Thirties. By that stage he was also very, very rich, ensconced in his Italian Renaissance mansion, Greenacres, with his one-time leading lady Mildred Davis, whom he'd married in 1923. They remained together until Mildred's death in 1969, but the relationship was less conventional than it appeared from the outside: Harold was a womaniser who had numerous affairs, including with Jobyna Ralston (who had replaced Mildred in his movies), as well as a lusty sideline photographing 3-D nudes. Mildred, lonely on the large 16-acre estate, and retired from acting, found consolation in drink.

Lloyd called it quits in 1938, after his sixth talkie, Professor Beware, flopped at the box office, returning to the screen just one last time, in 1946, at the urging of Preston Sturges, for The Sin of Harold Dibbledock. Sturges wanted him to reprise his character from The Freshman, Lloyd's hugely popular 1925 comedy, but as a man 20 years older, and still living on the glory of his former years. It was an inspired premise, that played with the conventions of Lloyd's movies, but it proved to be another critical and commercial failure, foreshadowing the demise of Sturges's own once great career.

Subsequently Lloyd kept himself occupied with his various hobbies, finding time to photograph over 5,000 women in the remaining years of his life, including Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield (both clothed) and Bettie Paige (who wasn't). There were also three children - Gloria, born in 1924, Peggy, adopted in 1930, and Harold Jr, born two months premature in 1931 - although Lloyd would later regret not spending more time with them. "I was their second chance at being parents, and they really spent time on me," says Suzanne, who moved in with them in 1954, after her mother, Gloria suffered a nervous breakdown, and stayed until Lloyd's death in 1971. Unable to afford the upkeep of Greenacres, and refused the permits to open it to the public as Harold had wanted, the estate was sold in 1975.

Although Lloyd's reputation has faded since his death, references to him continue to crop up in films as disparate as Jackie Chan's Shanghai Knights, which includes a homage to the clock scene in Safety Last!, and Dumb & Dumber, in which the Farrelly brothers paid their own respects by naming the principal characters Harry and Lloyd. Given Hollywood's constant recycling of the past, it was perhaps inevitable that Lloyd's catalogue would be dusted down for another go-round, but the remake of Safety Last! still represents a leap of faith on the part of Sony. "No one has really made a movie like this before; no one has adapted a silent film from the Twenties into a modern day film," says Jen Dana, a producer on the project. As part of the pitch to Sony she and her colleagues compiled a four-minute trailer incorporating clips from Safety Last!, Amelie, and old Woody Allen films to a soundtrack by the Beastie Boys. "They were very intrigued," she recalls. "Their phrase was, 'It's a new kind of family film.'"

That's exactly where Suzanne Lloyd wants to position her grandfather. After a less than stellar year in which movies like The Incredibles and The Polar Express stomped all over Alexander and Alfie, Hollywood is capitalising on what it views as a poorly served sector. "Harold Lloyd is family entertainment," says Suzanne, who thinks the gentler humour practiced by her grandfather is back in vogue. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine how Lloyd's original films will play to a fresh audience. Bogdanovich is not optimistic. "The younger generations are so impatient with anything from the past it's scary," he says. "Silent movies are like Sanskrit to them; black and white is anathema."

Lloyd himself, wisely perhaps, resisted re-releasing them in his own lifetime, sensing that the demand wasn't there. "While I think I'm quite well known with the nostalgia group, I'm known very, very little, if at all, with a great many," he told a seminar at the American Film Institute in 1969. And while part of his decline was self-perpetuated, it also reflected a shift in audience tastes, from the romantic entertainments at which he excelled to darker, more ambiguous fare. The idea of a Lloyd movie ending with the hero being lead away in handcuffs, as, for example, Chaplin is at the end of Modern Times, was inconceivable: the formula required Lloyd to save the day. His characters were eternally confident, even when they seemed to be rushing headlong into defeat.

Therein, perhaps, lies a clue to the nascent Lloyd revival, because no matter the odds, Harold never is defeated. His message of gung-ho optimism and honesty is exactly the one Americans want to hear today. Were he a marine in Fallujah, you can be sure he'd single-handedly liberate the city, despatch al-Zarqawi, and return to wedding bells and a tickertape parade.

Or, as Robert Wagner phrased it when he duly called to give a few words in Lloyd's favour, "The most important quality that Harold Lloyd brought to the screen was hope, and I think we all need that. So his hope and his postiveness mark him out as a person to identify with in this time and forever."