With All Due Retrospect: The Essential Harold Lloyd

By Palmer, Lorrie | Film & History, July 2005 | Go to article overview

With All Due Retrospect: The Essential Harold Lloyd


Palmer, Lorrie, Film & History


In our collective American psyche, we aspire to the twin ambitions of being spiritually connected to the natural world and of whirling with impunity through the sharp angles of a big city. We drive rugged vehicles that have four-wheel drive on the off-chance that we will someday leave the pavement for an untamed wilderness. In 2004, Sony Pictures bought the entire catalog of silent film actor, Harold Lloyd, and announced plans for a major retrospective of his work. This culminated in 2005, beginning April 20 (Harold's birthday) in theatrical re-releases in 35mm (first at the Film Forum in New York) of some of his best films. After his career in motion pictures came to an end, Lloyd spent his later years keeping a tight rein on his work, refusing to show it in the wrong format, especially television. He had a horror that the meticulous pacing of his films would be chopped up to fit commercial breaks or projected at the wrong speeds (an effect used for humor in the early days of TV). As a result, his artistry slipped unnoticed by a generation or two awed by Chaplin and Keaton. Sony's theatrical unveiling, featuring uncut prints from restored negatives with newly composed scores, continues the trend of reevaluation that began in the 1970s and brings Harold Lloyd to a new audience that recognizes a still-contemporary urge to prove it can measure up, whether in the raw, primeval forest or the tempest of a modern metropolis.

In two of his silent comedy classics, The Kid Brother (1927) and Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd reflects back to us our capacity for this duality. The former film depicts the pastoral lushness of an idyllic, rural setting, while the latter, filmed largely on location in New York, is a virtual semi-documentary of late-1920s city life. In these diverse surroundings, Lloyd embodies a quintessentially American conflict between pioneer nostalgia and urban verve, negotiating the vagaries of genre (romantic comedy and action), modern mechanization, and a shifting field of equality between men and women.

Harold Lloyd grew up in a poor but working family starting in Nebraska and ultimately moving to the site of a new industry wrapped in an art form, Los Angeles. From his teenage years doing every job available in a theatrical company to his early days in Hollywood as a rough-and-tumble extra, he learned his trade, eventually landing in comedy because he had a talent for the creative physicality involved. Once he emerged from the shadow of Charlie Chaplin by putting on a pair of lens-less, horn-rimmed glasses, he began to develop his own distinct performances. The very ordinariness of the young men he played was what won viewers over. He did not have the alien otherworldliness of the Chaplin and Keaton personas but, rather, just that of a normal, all-American guy who had energy, wit, and luck. He was never down-and-out, never an angsty little man, never dark. He was cheerful and up-beat, yet could "unwind with such furious force" that audiences would gasp. He evinced sentiment without pathos. Above all, even if he had to dig deep to find it, he had confidence.

Lloyd concentrated his efforts on making two kinds of films: the character picture or the gag picture. His injection of character development and psychological growth was an anomaly in silent-era comedy. And his gag efforts evolved into a new species of thrill pictures that have generated iconic images for over eighty years. Even people who have never heard his name have seen the bespectacled young man hanging from the tilting, nearly detached, clock face above an impossibly vertiginous drop to the street below in Safety Last (1923). In the 1989 film, Look Who's Talking, director Amy Heckerling recreated this moment in a dream sequence with Kirstie Alley, playing on our nearly unconscious knowledge of it.

Lloyd plays Harold Hickory in The Kid Brother, the smaller, youngest son of a burly country sheriff, a man who has a lot more in common with his two elder sons, strapping, dim fellows, like himself. …

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