Third among equals
New DVDs bolster Harold Lloyd's place in the silent comedy pantheon
Thu Nov 24 2005
Although he's often mentioned alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as one of the great silent comedians, let's face it: Harold Lloyd has suffered years of neglect. Endless, nerdy battles have been fought over the relative merits of Chaplin's unobtrusive camerawork and Keaton's aesthetic expressionism, about the winning pathos of the Little Tramp versus the cold deadpan of The Great Stone Face. Lloyd is seen as the kid brother—talented, but not on the same level as the two canonical auteurs. New Line's new collection of Lloyd classics—seven discs of twenty-five comedies—sets the record straight and makes a strong case that Lloyd might actually have been the greatest talent of the three.
Where his characters were concerned, Lloyd's persona was worlds apart from those of Keaton and Chaplin. When not playing rich heirs or millionaires (in An Eastern Westerner and Why Worry?), Lloyd portrayed aspirational middle class types: optimistic, fresh-faced American boys looking to rise up in the world (The Freshman, Safety Last!). Sometimes he played both at once: 1921's A Sailor-Made Man centers on a wealthy youth trying to succeed in the Navy to prove himself to his beloved's father. Chaplin and Keaton also portrayed innocents wandering through a conniving, cruel world, but Lloyd's navet is of the can-do kind. We never take pity on his characters: They're too plucky for that. He has an innocence we wish we could have.
That said, Lloyd's true claim to greatness is rooted less in the charm of his onscreen persona than in his behind-the-scenes expertise (in collaboration with directors such as Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor and Ted Wilde). These movies are beautifully constructed gems; the nuts-and-bolts filmmaking on display is often staggering. If he wasn't known as a comic master, Lloyd could lay some claim to fame as a great orchestrator of crowd scenes, on par with King Vidor or Fritz Lang. Witness the epic chase through the streets and palaces of an exotic country during A Sailor-Made Man, which suggests there may be a bit of Harold Lloyd in the antics of Indiana Jones.
Then there are Lloyd's two masterpieces, Safety Last! (1923) and The Freshman (1925). The shot in the former of him hanging from a giant clock high atop the street has entered our collective consciousness, with good reason. Throughout that entire sequence, Lloyd and directors Newmeyer and Taylor never lose sight of the pavement below, making it a constant reminder of the lurking danger. When smaller gags foil his ascent of the building—opening windows, annoying kids, and the ubiquitous mouse in the pants—the audience response is a bizarre combination of laughter and horror. Of course, all the great silent comedians worked this mixture, but Lloyd builds his tension very methodically over the course of the entire film. (In one of the many commentaries for these discs, critic Leonard Maltin describes Lloyd as the "king of setup.")
And of course, there's that monumental football game finale of The Freshman, justifiably famous for its sheer slapstick derring-do, as Lloyd's hapless character is pummeled by his opponents. But what's most notable about this sequence is how well it weaves together the film's varying characters—the kindly love interest; the gruff football coach; the mocking jocks; as well as situations that build comic suspense. It all seems effortless, but guess again: A commentary track featuring Maltin and historian Richard Bann mentions that Lloyd initially filmed the game at the Rose Bowl with a crowd of thousands, only to shelve it and redo the whole thing months later at enormous expense.
Lloyd's star faded after the onset of sound, but that may have had something to do with the Depression, too—his optimism may have appeared more anachronistic than his slapstick. Today, Lloyd's films feel genuinely prophetic. The way multiple story lines build deliberately towards a unifying climax seems like such a basic concept now, but the technique's use in subsequent sitcoms and romantic comedies is rooted in Lloyd's methodical setups. Chaplin and Keaton have received the glory in the intervening decades, but Harold Lloyd may have gotten the last laugh after all.
The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection is available now from New Line Home Entertainment for $89.95.