Harold Lloyd got in, and we hit the police car

As the `third genius' of the silent era is celebrated at the National Film Theatre, Constance Cummings tells Matthew Sweet what it was like to be his co-star

Constance Cummings and I are watching a movie. She's perched on her granddaughter's bed, I'm on my hands and knees, trying to work the VCR. The film is Movie Crazy (1932), and the scene is Hollywood, just outside the front gate of Paramount studios. The rain is pelting down, the hero's shoe has just disappeared into a drain, and beneath his horn- rimmed glasses and boater he looks vexed. He is given a lift with a glamorous, rather prickly young woman, but gets his macintosh stuck in the hood of her Model T. He yanks at it, and the sodden coat flops forward over the driver's face, causing her to crash straight into the back of a police car.

The star is Harold Lloyd, the great screen comedian who, in his 1920s heyday, outsold Keaton and Chaplin at the box office. The actress behind the wheel is a 22-year-old Constance Cummings. "Heavens," she breathes, gazing at the rain-washed image of her younger self. "Is that me?"

Now approaching her 89th birthday, Constance lives in the Chelsea house which she commissioned from the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius in 1939. Born Constance Halverstadt in 1910, she left her native Seattle for Broadway in 1929, and worked as a chorus girl and an understudy before being spotted by one of Samuel Goldwyn's talent scouts. Unable to believe her luck, she took the train west with her mother and was screen-tested to star in a movie opposite Ronald Colman.

"But I'd only been there a short time when Sam Goldwyn fired me," she explains. "I was very young and green and I think he wanted someone who was a bit older and more sophisticated. Ronald Colman realised how awful this was for me, and he pulled strings with an agent to get me a part in another film." She ended up at Columbia starring opposite Walter Huston in Howard Hawks's hit melodrama The Criminal Code (1931).

It was the beginning of a prolific acting career. She starred in horror pictures with Boris Karloff, gangster flicks with George Raft, comedies with Spencer Tracy. She was directed by William Wyler, James Whale and Frank Capra ("I think I rather fell in love with him," she confesses). At the end of a hectic decade, she married the British playwright Benn Levy, and came to live with him in London. She took many memorable parts in British films (opposite Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit, Peter Sellers in The Battle of the Sexes and Edward G. Robinson in Sammy Going South) and prestigious work in the theatre. She played Saint Joan, and received George Bernard Shaw's stamp of approval ("You are perfect for the part, child!" he pronounced). She starred with Laurence Olivier in a landmark production of Long Day's Journey into Night, and picked up a Tony Award in 1979 for her performance in Wings.

Constance has not seen Movie Crazy since she attended the premiere at the Rialto cinema, Manhattan, in 1932. Sitting next to her on the carpet, I can't help myself watching her watching the film. Her face is bright with delight as Lloyd hops through the gutter in pursuit of his lost shoe. But when the camera moves into close-up on her, she can only grimace. "Terrible lipstick I've got on."

Movie Crazy was a watershed in Lloyd's career. It is one of his most mature and satisfying comedies, and mixes strong visual comedy with the sharp characterisation afforded by the new medium of talking pictures. But it initiated a decline in his popularity that eventually drove him into retirement. His biographer Annette D'Ago- stino argues that the Wall Street crash was responsible: "Harold's character was an optimistic kind of guy. Obstacles meant nothing to him. Audiences who were unemployed and living on the breadline didn't relate to that idea so well." Lloyd was too brash and confident for the Depression. Thirties cinema-goers were more in tune with Laurel and Hardy's comedy of despair.

Lloyd first came to public attention in 1916-17, when he starred in a series of almost 100 one-reel knockabouts as Lonesome Luke, an aggressive variation on Charlie Chaplin's Tramp. The comedy of the period was dominated by such music-hall grotesques. At the end of 1917, Lloyd and his producer Hal Roach decided to break with the tradition, and came up with a new kind of protagonist. This was the "glasses character", a breezy, go-getting Everyman who - despite nearly breaking his neck in every reel - always kept smiling to the final frame. By 1920 he was one of the best-loved stars in Hollywood, but a gruesome accident the same year nearly put paid to more than his career. Posing for publicity pictures on the set on Haunted Spooks, he lit a prop bomb - the silent-comedy type, with "bomb" written on it - and discovered it wasn't a dummy. The explosion blew off his thumb and forefinger. Creepily, the movie was about a man making unsuccessful attempts to kill himself.

Rather like his onward-and-upward screen character, Lloyd didn't let this misfortune squash his optimism. He had a long leather glove made, with two prosthetic digits to replace the ones lost in the accident. His most famous daredevil stunts - dangling blindfolded from a girder in Never Weaken (1921), hanging from the hands of a skyscraper clock in Safety Last (1923), surfing on the roof of a runaway tram in Girl Shy (1924) - were all accomplished with this handicap.

Lloyd married his regular leading lady, Mildred Davis, in 1923. In accordance with Hollywood tradition, she retired from the screen after the wedding, and Lloyd brought in other female co-stars. Constance Cummings nearly wasn't one of them. "Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was dead against me doing the role," Constance remembers. "`Harold Lloyd only wants dumb blondes, his leading ladies are nothing,' he said. But I'd read the script and I thought it was delightful. I'm not sure how I did it, but in the end I convinced him. It was the first time I raised my voice in Hollywood." Cohn was a notorious tyrant who had the studio offices bugged so he could eavesdrop on his employees' conversations. But Constance knew how to handle him. She took the part in Movie Crazy, and later that year fought and won a court battle with her boss over a dodgy contract.

The work, she remembers, was its own reward. "It was almost like playing a game in somebody's house. Mildred used to come down to the set and bring him a picnic lunch, and there was a very relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Harold had a couple of old boys around who used to play bit parts, and after we'd rehearsed a scene they used to come up and suggest ideas. He'd never say, `I know what I'm doing!' He'd listen to them, and he'd make them feel important." Hollywood in the 1930s was not always like this. "I was in a film with Mae West once," recalls Constance. "And she wasn't what you'd call cosy."

Out of fashion, Lloyd retired from the screen in 1938, making a brief comeback for Preston Sturges in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). Not enjoying the experience, Lloyd retreated to his 44-room Renaissance-style Beverly Hills mansion, and caught up on the family life that his 1920s success had de-nied him. When his daughter separated from her husband after a few months of marriage, he elected to bring up their six-month-old daughter, Suzanne Lloyd Hayes.

Lloyd guarded his work very jealously, refusing to release his films for screening on television, hating the way the medium broke up its material with commercials. Slowly, the American public began to forget him. "He knew that he'd held himself back, and that people didn't know who he was, but didn't want his films shown in a bad light, or shown over and over again." recalls Hayes. "I remember when I was a child and Movie Crazy was shown on TV. Paramount had distributed the film and owned a percentage of it, and they were showing it three times a day in a slot called Million Dollar Movie. He was furious. He got straight on to his attorney, and made a deal to buy the movie back."

Suzanne Lloyd Hayes is now custodian of the Lloyd archive, and has co- operated with the National Film Theatre in programming a comprehensive season of her grandfather's work. She's also trying to get a remake of Movie Crazy into production. Of course, she won't say whom she's got in mind for the Lloyd part, but if I was her, I'd cast Jackie Chan. What about a cameo role for one of the stars of the original? "Oh, certainly," she beams. Might Constance Cummings be making a comeback at the age of 89? "I'm quite an old lady," she reflects. "But I'm not completely retired yet."

`Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius' runs from 1 to 28 April at the National Film Theatre, SE1 (0171 928 3232), with `Movie Crazy' showing on the opening night.

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