Silents are Golden: The Irrepressible Harold Lloyd

Silents are Golden: The Irrepressible Harold Lloyd

If we can credit a single figure for being a silent comedy legend, a gifted performer, a pioneer of the cinema, and the very personification of the can-do spirit of the 1920s, it’s comedian Harold Lloyd. While he’s perhaps not as well known today as fellow clowns Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton (indeed, you can rarely keep the names of the three entertainers separate), few souls out there won’t recognize Lloyd’s signature round spectacles–or that famous still of him dangling from a clock in Safety Last! (1923).

Harold Lloyd hangs from a clock in Safety Last! (1923)
Lloyd hangs from a clock in Safety Last! (1923)

And if you take a look at Lloyd’s films, you’ll quickly discover a fresh, funny, and timeless body of work that can still delight and inspire us today. It’s not for nothing that Lloyd was one of the most popular entertainers of the entire silent era–and that’s no exaggeration.

He was born April 20, 1893, in the tiny village of Burchard, Nebraska (today, its population hovers around a mere 80 people). His father “Foxy” Lloyd and his mother Elizabeth clashed over Foxy’s failed business endeavors and they would divorce in 1910–which was unusual for the time period. Lloyd would decide to move with his father to San Diego. Family lore holds that the two Lloyds couldn’t decide whether to move to California or New York and decided to flip a coin. Fortunately for the world, California was the winner.

Harold Lloyd young
a young Harold

In 1913, the Edison Film Company was shooting in San Diego and was looking for extras. Since he always had the ambition to be an actor, Lloyd decided to give moving pictures a shot, making his first appearance in Edison’s The Old Monk’s Tale (1913). Enjoying the work, he decided to head to Los Angeles and become a part of this fascinating new business.

Always a go-getter, Lloyd was so determined to be in pictures that he figured out how to sneak onto the Universal lot. He’d later recall: “The gatekeeper was a crabby old soul who let me understand that it would be a pleasure to keep me out. As I lurked about I noticed that at noon a crowd of actors and extras drifted out in make-up to eat at a lunch counter across the way, passing the gatekeeper without question each way. The next morning I brought a make-up box. At noon I dodged behind a billboard, made up, mingled with the lunch-counter press and returned with them through the gate without challenge.” Lloyd’s daring paid off, and he would be an extra in films like Rory O’ the Bogs (1913) and The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)–working alongside fellow extra Hal Roach, who would later be pivotal to his career.

In the spring of 1915 Lloyd briefly worked at the Keystone Film Company–the mighty “Laugh Factory” itself. After this stint, Hal Roach contacted him with an offer to star in a silent comedy series as a Chaplinesque character named “Willie Work.” The series was rather tepid, so Lloyd changed his character to “Lonesome Luke,” who became more popular. By 1917, Lloyd decided he wanted to be more unique–and decided to be a normal-looking, energetic “everyman,” distinguished only by his round spectacles (he’d call his “everyman” the “Glass” character). In the sea of screen clowns in pancake makeup, ill-fitting clothes and fake mustaches, this truly did make him stand out.

Harold Lloyd
Harold as the “Glass” character

A tireless worker, Lloyd made short after short and was swiftly making a name for himself. He was only slowed down by a freak accident in 1919 when a prop bomb he was holding during a photoshoot turned out to be the real deal. The explosion caused burns, temporary blindness, and destroyed his right thumb and one of his fingers. His later recollections of the accident sum up his amazingly optimistic attitude toward life: “I thought I would surely be so disabled that I would never be able to work again. I didn’t suppose that I would have one five-hundredth of what I have now. Still, I thought, ‘Life is worthwhile. Just to be alive.’ I still think so.” He would continue with acting and even performing stunts with a special glove concealing his injured hand.

Mildred Davis and Harold Lloyd in Number, Please? (1920)
Mildred Davis and Harold Lloyd in Number, Please? (1920)

By the 1920s Lloyd made a savvy transition to comedy features, starting with A Sailor-Made Man (1921). He set high standards for his work and made sure to have a solid team of writers and gag men. His carefully-crafted features were widely acclaimed and wildly popular–some of the biggest box office hits of the 1920s. His thrill comedy Safety Last! (1923) became his most iconic film thanks to the famous clock-dangling scene, and he was critically admired for the nuanced Grandma’s Boy (1922) and inspiring The Kid Brother (1927). To the adoring public, the beaming, thrill-seeking boy-next-door Harold Lloyd could do no wrong. He was very much a national role model.

Fabulously wealthy, Lloyd would build a 44-room mansion called Greenacres that even had its own 9-hole golf course. He and his wife Mildred Davis–a former actress in his films–had two children, Gloria and Harold Jr., and also adopted a girl, Marjorie. He and Mildred would stay married until her death in 1969–and it was their only marriage, too.

Harold Lloyd in The Freshman (1925)
The Freshman (1925)

By the 1930s his star finally started to fade, although his initial talkies did well. After a few hits, a flop, and an unsuccessful homage film called The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Lloyd retired from his filmmaking endeavors and concentrated on hobbies and family. He became a noted photographer and was heavily involved with the Freemasons and the Shriners, frequently visiting sick children at Shriner hospitals.

Harold Lloyd Freemason
Lloyd in a traditional Freemason’s hat

The beloved Harold Lloyd would pass away in 1971 from prostate cancer. He had guarded his films zealously, not wanting subpar prints circulating with bad music. While this made his films less familiar to today’s audiences than, say, Chaplin’s, you might say that Lloyd had been right all along. In this 21st-century digital era, his films have been restored and are frequently exhibited with beautiful scores, just as he would’ve wished. And if he could see one of our modern audience enjoying his lovingly-made comedies, laughing just as much as they did back in the 1920s, he would be justly proud.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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7 Responses to Silents are Golden: The Irrepressible Harold Lloyd

  1. Tony Lilich says:

    I really enjoyed you writing. Would love to see the films you mentioned.

    • Lea S. says:

      Thank you so much! Fortunately tons of Lloyd films are available on YouTube and on DVD, too. I’m about to purchase a nice new Blu-ray of SAFETY LAST! myself!

  2. Stuart Cook says:

    Harold Lloyd was indeed one of the great silent film comedy stars, but he also made some enjoyable sound features. Harold had a 34 year film career, and really helped mold the Hal Roach Studios in its earliest days. He would go on to be his own producer, and while some of his talkies do not play as well as his silents, they should not be overlooked.

  3. Sara Stewart says:

    What a great article! Harold Lloyd was ahead of his time, knowing how he wanted to present himself and his characters.

  4. Jodi says:

    I didn’t realize how Harold controlled how his films were mass produced. I had forgotten how he was injured, too. My little kids and I love his movies, especially “Speedy.” The silents are a great introduction to classic cinema for kids. 💜 🎥 🤗

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