The Big Three of silent comedy is almost never disputed. Aficionados of early film, when discussing comedy, may include names like Fatty Arbuckle, Charley Chase, or Max Linder in the discussion, but in reality, the three giants of silent comedy are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd is the most forgotten of the three, and that’s a shame because his movies contain inventive and original gags and he is the greatest practitioner of daredevil comedy that I know of (A lot of Jackie Chan’s work reminds me of Harold Lloyd…but with more Kung Fu and fewer flappers).
Lloyd had enjoyed some success in the teens playing a character called “Lonesome Luke” which even he admitted was little more than a Chaplin rip-off. It wasn’t until he put on a pair of glasses and stopped imitating Chaplin, that Lloyd really started to find his groove in Hollywood. Safety Last is perhaps his most famous work and does contain the scene he is most remembered for (the famous “clock scene” that you see above).
Lloyd is not as remembered today because he had no need for publicity after he retired. Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd all owned their own studios and produced their own movies. Keaton signed over the rights to his movies and lived for many years in difficult financial straits. His movies were re-released from time to time and he occasionally acted in movies and on television later in life. Chaplin continued to work almost until his death, re-released his movies fairly regularly (often with new scores or narration that he had written) and he was constantly in the press because in the middle of the 20th century because of paternity suits, suspected un-American activities, or his exile from the United States. Lloyd however, retired from movies in the mid-1930s (only coming out of retirement to make 1947’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock with Preston Sturges and Howard Hughes). He was a very wealthy man (his Beverly Hills lawn was big enough that he put a nine-hole golf course on it) and set a high price to show his movies, which meant that the public did not see them as often.
In many ways the plot of Safety Last (a play on the phrase “Safety First,” popularized during the First World War) seems like a standard comedy (although, to be fair, I have no idea how standard this would have been in 1923). Harold plays “Harold” and Mildred Pierce plays “Mildred” (apparently they went to the Tony Danza School of Character Naming, since he’s never played someone who wasn’t named “Tony”). They are a young couple in love. He is off the to city to make it big and once he does, she will join him and they will be married. He sends her letters that greatly exaggerate his financial situation and, of course, she surprises him by walking in on him at work. He works at a department store, but must convince her that he is the manager. He overhears the real manager lamenting their lack of publicity. He will pay anyone $1,000.00 to bring publicity to the store. Of course, Lloyd has a brainstorm. His friend and roommate is good at climbing buildings (having scaled one early in the film to escape a cop) and so they will have this daredevil climb the outside of the building to attract a crowd. Unfortunately, when they are set to begin, the police officer is there to arrest the friend and Lloyd must scale the building himself.
Lloyd spends about a fifth of the movie climbing the building, and it is still a genuinely exciting scene. As far as I know, Lloyd did all or, at the very least, almost all of his own stunts. He probably worked with a net in most scenes, but there are many where the danger is clearly real. He must battle pigeons and dogs and his own fear on the way up. Near the top, he almost falls and is saved by hanging onto the hands of a clock (see image above). The plot sounds trite, like something from a boring romantic comedy, but it isn’t boring, it feels fresh and exciting and Lloyd is an extremely charming presence on film.
Lloyd’s character was easily identified with the 1920s. He was a go-getter and an optimist who was always on the way up, working his way through the ranks of business to “make something of himself.” Unfortunately these very characteristics made him seem hopelessly out of touch with the world after the start of the Great Depression (whereas Chaplin’s Tramp character fit right in). He was entertaining and inventive and a master of suspense and danger as comedic devices. It is a shame that he is the least remembered of the three great silent film comedians, but hopefully at least one or two people who read this blog will go out and discover Harold Lloyd for themselves.
Why this was a hard decision (Other movies from 1923 that are worth seeing):
A Woman of Paris was Chaplin’s first foray into strict drama. Meant as a vehicle to give Edna Purviance, his longtime leading lady, a career on her own as a dramatic actress, it was a financial failure (the first of his career). Audiences stayed away when they realized that Chaplin was not the star of the film (in fact, he only appears very briefly as a porter). This movie appeared on many “Greatest Films of All Time” lists in the first half of the 20th Century, although few people have seen it today. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the first of Lon Chaney’s two greatest films (the other being Phantom of the Opera). A classic that features one of his best performances and his customary, highly detailed makeup jobs, the movie is a must-see for fans of literature and film.
Did you know? (1923 Trivial Knowledge):
“Young man, don’t you know you might fall and get hurt?”-Old Woman to Harold as he’s climbing the building
Which DVD version did I watch?
The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 1