Beginning his career in motion pictures in 1914 and quickly moving under the direction of Hal Roach, Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) developed a bespectacled "nice-guy" persona that transformed him into one of the most popular comedians of the silent film era.
Apair of dark, oversized horn-rimmed glasses providing him with a recognizable trademark comparable to Charlie Chaplin's black mustachio and Buster Keaton's deadpan expression, silent film actor Harold Lloyd matured from a film extra into one of America's most popular comedians, embodying as he did the mythos of the hard-working, optimistic, all-American boy-next-door. He exhibited physical agility and courage while performing the daredevil stunts that appeared in many of his films throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s. Yet, Lloyd's primary role on-screen was as a shy, somewhat nervous young man who, through misadventure rather than any fault of his own, was constantly confronted by circumstances threatening to thwart his efforts at a quiet, happy life. More recent generations of film fans still recognize Lloyd from the movie stills that depict his conservative character in some sort of incongruous predicament. He may have been hanging many yards from the ground, from one hand of a huge clock face, or clinging to the side of a skyscraper, with no way down. Among Lloyd's most notable films were The Freshman and Safety Last, both made before the advent of talking pictures.
Bitten by the Acting Bug
Born in Burchard, Nebraska, on April 20, 1893, Lloyd inherited a stubborn pioneering spirit from his grandfather, owner of one of the state's first general stores. His family moved frequently due to his rootless father's shifting career choices. At one point, J. Darsie Lloyd dabbled in photography, while another year found him running a pool hall. Young Harold managed to stay in school and completed his high school education in San Diego, California. By 1911, the start of his senior year, Lloyd had demonstrated his intelligence through his skill on the debate team and his physical agility in the boxing ring. Because of the extensive acting experience he accumulated over his teen years, Lloyd was awarded leading roles in all the school plays, as well as in several local theatre productions.
Seeing the 1903 showing of The Great Train Robbery fixed forever in Lloyd's mind an exciting possibility: working in the movies. Fascinated by acting and the theatre since he was a small boy, Lloyd had developed a collection of useful skills ranging from stagehand and makeup artistry through a range of talents gained from a series of backstage apprenticeships. While films raised his interest, the stage continued to be Lloyd's home until his late teens. His first acting experience came on the stage, with his debut that of Fleance in a small-town production of Shakespeare's Macbeth. In 1907, 11-year-old Lloyd began a relationship with the Burwood, Nebraska, Stock Company that enabled him to go on stage whenever a production called for casting a young boy.
After graduation from high school in San Diego, Lloyd established a new working relationship to replace that which he had lost by leaving Burwood. He put his make-up skills to use at the New Grand Theatre Stock Company, by disguising his youth and playing old men and other unusual characters. A small part in a silent film shot in San Diego by the Edison Company in 1913 rekindled Lloyd's interest in movies when he was cast as a Yanqui Indian and paid $3 for a day's shooting. In 1913, he traveled to Los Angeles, where he found roles in several stage productions. Lloyd also pursued his dream of working in films by donning full makeup and sneaking into one of several film studios by mixing in with groups of working actors returning from their lunch break. This technique gained him more small parts with Edison and eventually got him a position with Hollywood's Universal Studios.
Casting Calls at Hal Roach Studios
While waiting for casting calls at Universal, Lloyd became friends with Hal Roach, a fellow film extra and an aspiring film director. Benefiting from a family inheritance in 1914, the fortunate Roach achieved his dream and established his own studio the following year. He hired Lloyd to act in several of his one-reel productions as a comedian. Together the two film buffs created a character they called Willie Work, which Lloyd performed. While Willie wasn't that successful with audiences, his next character, Lonesome Luke attracted a following as a film character. Lloyd's growing comedic skills became increasingly noticed. Finally, Pathe studios approached Roach and he lost exclusive use of his friend. The bigger studio lured Lloyd into their stable of actors with promises of better pay—$50 per week, as opposed to the $5 per day he was earning from Roach—and significant leading roles. Under contract to Pathe, Lloyd further developed the Lonesome Luke character as a misfit—inspired by Chaplin's character—garbed in clothing a size too small who ambled, a reel at a time, through short films characterized by little or no plot balanced against a heavy dose of 100-percent improvised slapstick.
While the Lonesome Luke character continued to be successful, Lloyd soon realized that the extensive frenetic chase scenes and impromptu pratfalls comprising such films were not enough to make him the recognizable star Chaplin was. In 1917, in a one-reel film titled Over the Fence, he finally donned the pair of round, horned-rimmed spectacles, low-key suit, and straw boater hat that would become so familiar to film audiences. Roach and Pathe made their star's new "college boy" look well known to moviegoers, producing an average of a film a week over the next five years. Stumbling along the road to the American dream, Lloyd's "Glass" character proved to be one that audiences identified with. He was not as well endowed with looks, money, or clout as his more successful co-stars. Yet, through sheer determination and quick thinking, Lloyd's character ultimately achieved his goal of modest happiness, spurred on by the attentions of a succession of co-stars that included Bebe Daniels, Mildred Davis, Jobyna Ralston, and Constance Cummings. Pathe produced more than 100 one-reel films featuring the "Glass" character between 1918 and 1919. They switched to two-reel films following the success of Bumping into Broadway.
Crowned King of Daredevil Comedy
Because of films like High and Dizzy (1920) and Safety Last (1923)—famous for the scene where the actor, billed here as a timid store clerk, dangles from the face of a clock tower—Lloyd developed a reputation as a risk-taker. Like Buster Keaton, Lloyd performed his own stunts, despite the fact that he had received a disabling injury as early as 1919, when a prop bomb created for a special film effect, exploded in his hand during a publicity photo session, blowing off his thumb and almost blinding the actor. However, Lloyd proved wrong any and all predictions claiming his career to be at an end. Back on the job within six months, he expanded his roles and made longer films, starring in his first five-reel feature, Grandma's Boy, for Pathe in 1922.
The movie-going public clamored for more full-length films from Lloyd, and his future as a major film star was assured. Working with the Roach and Pathe studios through the early 1920s, the actor also founded the Harold Lloyd Corporation to produce many of his films between 1924 and 1930. He would continue to do work under contract for Pathe, Fox, and Paramount throughout his career.
Advent of "Talkies" Dampened Lloyd's Appeal
In the typical Lloyd film, the actor played his characteristic persona: a slightly bumbling, naive, quiet fellow— variously a shop clerk, soda jerk, professor, water boy, or milkman—who gets in one fix or another during his pursuit of a disinterested love interest. In Why Worry (1923), Lloyd played a rich young man who has shied from life due to a host of imagined illnesses. Ultimately, he manages to secure the affections of a initially unenthusiastic Mildred Davis. (Interestingly, Miss Davis must have felt quite differently about her co-star off-screen for she and Lloyd were married while the film was being shot at Roach's studio.) In The Freshman (1925), considered by many to be Lloyd's best effort, the bespectacled actor serves as a shy water boy working for his college football team. In typical Lloyd fashion, the geeky freshman ends up saving the game through a freak touchdown just before the game is called. One of the most profitable silent films ever made, The Freshman grossed $2.5 million at the U.S. box-offices.
The introduction of sound to motion pictures ended the career of many silent film stars—particularly romantic leads—whose voices contained accents or other inflections that contradicted the on-screen images they had created during the silent era. While Lloyd's career, which had flourished during the 1920s, did not suffer with the introduction of his voice—characterized by one reviewer as "bland and boyish"—the introduction of dialogue eventually wrought a change within his motion picture audience. In short, the coming of sound supplanted film audience's desire for over-the-top stunts in favor of dialogue and more in-depth characters whose psychological interactions became central to film plots. Despite the success of films such as his 1932 talkie Movie Crazy, by the mid-1930s Lloyd began to consider retiring from the film business. Professor Beware (1938) dissatisfied the actor to such an extent that he retired from acting for several years, devoting his talents to producing several films for RKO.
In 1945, Lloyd once again moved briefly back in front of the camera. The 1947 release of The Sins of Harold Diddlebock as a tepid sequel to the popular The Freshman would mark the end of Lloyd's acting career. Produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Preston Sturges, the film was a screwball comedy typical of the 1940s, featuring a 52-year-old Lloyd still wearing the same horn-rimmed glasses and conservative attire but now uncharacteristically maintaining both feet on the ground. Rereleased as Mad Wednesday, the film did little to spark either audience enthusiasm or its star's desire to resume life as an actor.
After retirement from film, Lloyd remained active in both California's Republican political arena and within his local Hollywood community. Active in the Shriners, he was elected Imperial Potentate of the Shrine in 1949, and served in this national post as a good-will ambassador to the many children's hospitals supported by that organization. The father of three children, Lloyd and his family lived in a large home in Beverly Hills. Retired by age 60, he reaped the benefits of a large income earned both through a strenuous acting career, in which he appeared in more than 500 movies, and from a responsible approach to investing his earnings. A savvy businessman, Lloyd wisely kept control of the film rights to many of the motion pictures he starred in over his lifetime. At the time of his death in Hollywood on March 8, 1971, he left an estate estimated to be one of the largest in Hollywood at that time, its value drawn in part from the fact that much of Lloyd's money was made prior to the establishment of Federal income taxes.
In the early 1960s, Lloyd made compilations of scenes from several of his films. They were released as Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy (1962) and Harold Lloyd's Funny Side of Life (1963), with cuts of Lloyd suspended at a precarious height featured prominently in each. Today Lloyd's films are little shown, with only The Freshman and Safety Last occasionally screened for film buffs. However, his reputation among scholars of motion pictures and fan of early American films remains secure. In 1952, to honor his work as one of the first great film comedians, a special Academy Award was presented: "To Harold Lloyd, master comedian and good citizen."
Further Reading on Harold Lloyd
D'Augustino, Annette M., Harold Lloyd, Greenwood Press, 1994.
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns, Knopf, 1975.
Lloyd, Harold, An American Comedy, 1928.
The Oxford Companion to Film, edited by Liz-Anne Bawden, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Shipman, David, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, Crown, 1970.