by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Harold Lloyd was one of the great silent film comedians of the 1920s, ranking up there with the great Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Born in Nebraska in 1893 and demonstrating a desire and talent for acting at a young age, Lloyd migrated to California with his father in 1913 and got into stage work.
After he tried his hand in Hollywood and started out with bit parts, Lloyd met Hal Roach, who was developing his own studio that was a true comedy factory. Among the personas Lloyd developed for the Roach studio was a Chaplin knock-off named “Lonesome Luke,” that was popular, but the comedian knew he had to develop his own persona.
What he called his “glass” character, because of the distinctive spectacles he wore, Lloyd created someone who was instant recognizable and relatable to his audience, an everyman in appearance, who also injected romance in his films in ways his rivals didn’t. His stunts and camera tricks creating illusions of great danger were renowned.
In summer 1919, Lloyd was in a publicity shoot when it was suggested he pick up what was assumed to be a prop bomb and light a cigarette with it. What turned out to be a live explosive blew up and tore off the thumb and forefinger of the comedian’s right hand, as well as temporarily blinded him. Told he’d never see again, Lloyd did regain his sight and wore a special glove to mask the damage to his hand.
Lloyd’s breakthrough was 1923’s Safety Last! and its iconic scene of the comedian dangling from a damaged clock at what seemed like a dozen or more stories off the street. Using special camera angles, Lloyd performed the stunt at three stories above a mattress, though that obviously was still a dangerous maneuver!
After marrying his leading lady, Mildred Davis, and leaving Roach for Paramount Pictures which gave him more control over his films, Lloyd’s success grew. Massive hits like The Freshman and Speedy cemented his iconic status as a preeminent film comedian and he was the top box office draw two straight years and the highest paid star in 1928.
With total control of his films, Lloyd tried out new concepts, such as screening a film for a test audience and then using the feedback to reshoot and edit and then show the movie again. He also paid his crews for the entire year, rather than just the time they worked on set and was also innovative with camera techniques.
The talking era, as was the case with so many silent starts, was not nearly as successful for Lloyd. He made several sound films by the end of the 1930s, but they were both critically and commercially troubled. Lloyd tried his hand at producing in the early 1940s, but this venture also was unsuccessful. He made one last film in 1947 with the noted director Preston Sturges, but this project also proved to be a failure.
The recipient in 1953 of an honorary Oscar for his contribution to film, Lloyd, who owned the rights to most of his work, released compilations in the early Sixties that brought him renewed attention. He was also the “Imperial Potentate,” the highest position in the Shriners masonic fraternal order and was president and chairman of the board of the Shriners Hospital Corporation.
Lloyd died at his massive Greenacres mansion in Beverly Hills in 1971. He intended it to be opened as a museum and it was for a time, but he didn’t leave enough money for its operation and visitation was not strong. The property was subdivided and the house sold–it still stands under the ownership of grocery store magnate Ron Burkle.
The photo highlighted here is from the Homestead’s collection and is a 1920s print from the photographer Albert Witzel. It includes Lloyd’s signed greeting of “With Very Best Wishes / Harold Lloyd” in the lower right corner just above Witzel’s mark. The date is unknown, but it is from the time of the comedy legend’s peak in popularity.