'Safety Last!' © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius of Comedy

As the bumbling, accident prone youth with the dapper grey suits, horn-rimmed glasses and straw boater hat, Harold Lloyd personified the ambitious but clumsy young man who dares to dream big whilst attempting to win the girl– with varying degrees of success. Lloyd’s athletic prowess, comic delivery and deft defying stunts endeared him to millions of slapstick fans from across the globe, who marvelled at his performances in the 4-reel film The Sailor-Made Man (1921) Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925).

Portrait of Harold Lloyd, circa 1924 © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

Born Harold Clayton Lloyd in Burchard, Nebraska on April 20, 1893, Lloyd’s early life saw him relocate 8 times from state to state, and he was deeply affected by his parents’ early divorce in 1912. It was only after his father J. Darcie ‘Foxy’ Lloyd flipped a coin after receiving a $3000 settlement after an accident at work that his fate was determined – ‘heads’ would mean California and ‘tails’ would be New York. Lloyd made his film debut in San Diego, California through Edison’s Pan American Exposition, making his debut as a Yaqui Indian in The Old Monk’s Tale. (1912). Lloyd disguised himself as a film extra at Universal Studios, and it was on the lot that he met an aspiring Film Director – Hal Roach. Lloyd was soon working for Roach at his own production company, where Lloyd took on the lead role in two-reel comedies. Together with the help of Pathé – and later Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox – they produced 100 comedy shorts, with Lloyd devising the characters of ‘Will E. Work’ and the moustachioed ‘Lonesome Luke’ which drew comparisons with Chaplin’s portrayal of The Little Tramp. At the heart of Lloyds’ winning turns were the gags, both the one-liners and two-liners, with Lloyd providing the pratfalls and punchlines. Disillusioned with Lonesome Luke, he soon created a new character in 1917- for which he became synonymous – as ‘Harold’ the hapless, bespectacled youth in a grey suit and straw boater, making his character ‘debut’ in Over The Fence (1917).

‘Movie Crazy’ © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

From 1914-1947, Lloyd made close to 200 movies, earning and making more films than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. A firm friend of Douglas Fairbanks Snr and a close neighbour of Cary Grant in Palm Springs, he was on cordial terms with Chaplin ‘but he was ‘within himself’ says Harold’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd. ‘I don’t know if he was shy or reserved. I met Chaplin once when I was 7 and visited his house in Vevey, Switzerland. I said in the car to my grandparents ‘Who are we going to visit?’ They just said: ‘we are going to meet a really nice man that dad used to work for, who works in the same profession, and has a bunch of kids!’. Whilst Lloyd rarely hung out with Keaton, he ‘liked’ him and admired his dedication to his craft. ‘Everything he did was so miniscule, whether it was picking up a fork or a body movement. He respected his form, style, and the precision of what he did.’

Harold & Suzanne Lloyd © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

However, tragedy struck in August 1919 when Lloyd, posing for a publicity shot at The Roach Studio, accidently picked up what appeared to be a prop, but was actually a ‘live’ bomb, which exploded and blew the thumb and index finger off his right hand. Lloyd was later knocked unconscious as the bomb blew up 16 ft up in the air. He lost his eyesight for three months and remained in a coma for three days with severe burns on his face. ‘They didn’t put an investigation in’ says Suzanne. ‘He said ‘I don’t care, it’s an accident.’ He didn’t want to mess with fate. He managed to drag the young assistant (a boy) out into the street before Harold passed out.’ For a while, it appeared that Lloyd’s career was in tatters. His close friends Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Mary Pickford offered him a job at United Artists, but he said ‘you’ve got your comedian, you’ve got Charlie, I don’t need to come into the mix’. However, he acquired a calfskin flesh-coloured glove that hid his injury in public with a built-in spring device in place of his missing thumb and finger which allowed Lloyd to continue performing his own stunts. In private, Lloyd came to terms with his horrific injury, and would pose openly for pictures with his family without his glove, extending the injured palm of his hands to establish a bond with one he considered a trusted friend.

Harold, holding Pepi the poodle, Suzanne, Harold Jr, Mid, holding Pierre, Gary, governess to Suzanne and holding Beau, who is Harold Jr.’s dog and Roy Brooks © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

Lloyd and Roach moved into feature length films by 1921, and their most iconic film is aptly titled Safety Last! (1923) which was a huge triumph and led to a series of lucrative action-comedies that demonstrated Lloyd’s edginess, notably when Lloyd scampers around and narrowly avoids slipping from the girders of a building under construction. It also includes one of cinema’s most infamous scenes – showing a horrified Lloyd dangling from the skyscraper clock by his fingertips. ‘He was always taking chances by using his body, whether he was in a fight, climbing a tree, taking a chase and running – it was all movement with him’ explains Suzanne. ‘He saw Bill Strothers (as The Pal ‘Limpy’ Bill) climb the skyscraper building. He saw it downtown and he was horrified about what it was doing to the crowds, but he thought I’ve got to get his on tape! He was always looking ahead and seeing things through a producer’s mind that said ‘I’ve got to give them what they want’ He used a laugh-o-meter to test the crowd’s reaction. He took 20 minutes out of For Heaven’s Sake (1926) and put two new scenes in it. He didn’t have a super-ego about things. If something didn’t work, he took it out. It was all about ‘making it better’.

‘Movie Crazy’© Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

After appearing in his final film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947) Harold effectively retired from the movie business, but later released two compilation films – Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962) and Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life (1963). Both were received with rapturous acclaim and reintroduced Lloyd to a new generation of fans unfamiliar with his creative genius. Although Lloyd was never credited as a writer for his own gags and storylines, he was a shrewd businessman. Retaining the rights to his films, he refused to have his films played with a piano accompaniment and he resisted the idea of putting his films on television, as he detested the steady stream of commercials. However, Suzanne believes that he caused himself a great disservice by not embracing the medium. ‘He lost about two generations who didn’t know his films – unlike Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy whose movies were being pushed out constantly.’

‘Movie Crazy’ © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

During his retirement, Lloyd focused his attentions to his extensive art collection, and his love for 3-D photography. Lloyd loved to capture people from different walks of life. Between 1947-1970, Lloyd travelled extensively around all the major US parks and major cities whilst sampling the sights, sounds and wonders of Spain, France, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong, Switzerland, UK, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Holland and Norway.
His images included nude glamour models and celebrity portraits of stars including Marilyn Monroe, Richard Burton and John Wayne. In 1992, Suzanne published 3:D Hollywood – Photographs by Harold Lloyd containing 200 pages with 50 in 3-D and close-ups of celebrities including Bogart & Bacall and Ronald Reagan (with a pair of glasses in each volume so the pictures could be seen in 3-D). He also took pride in his collection of animals as a breeder of 100 Great Danes for show, and also kept kennels to hold 25 dogs at ‘Greenacres’, where they were kept at his backlot on Santa Monica Blvd in Westwood. Santa Monica and Shelby (where the Mormon Temple run their organisation today).
As one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Arts, Motion Pictures and Sciences, Lloyd received an honorary Academy award for his part as a ‘master comedian and good model citizen’ in 1953 (although some considered it as a thinly veiled dig at Chaplin who by then, had left the U.S for Switzerland after allegations of communism from the McCarthy Administration). Lloyd never kept the costumes from his film, but he bequeathed his trademark glasses and make-up kit to his close friend the Producer & Director Richard Correll on his deathbed in 1971 – who in turn donated them to the Academy’s museum.

Harold Lloyd with his Honorary Academy Award in 1953 © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

A generous philanthropist, Lloyd should also be remembered for his altruism and great humanitarian efforts. He was always keen to help others realise their potential, and knew that it was important to give back to the community. Appointed the Imperial Potentate of the Shriners, (an American version of The Freemasons) he supported various charitable hospitals for disadvantaged children. A mentor to many young actors, he put Robert Wagner in touch with his first agent, after his daughter Gloria spotted him at a wedding. ‘He used to pine for my mother, whom he had such a crush on. The family used to call him ‘R Baby’ instead of his famous nickname ‘RJ’. He wanted to act and not work in the family oil business. He used to say if I was your dad, it would have been so much better!’ Lloyd also developed a special friendship with Jack Lemmon, whom he first met in New York and later mentored as one who wanted to break into showbusiness. He was going to business school at Harvard and had been expected to take a role in the family steel business – and would spend most weekend’s sleeping on the couch at the girls apartment. Jack’s partner, the model and actress Cynthia Stone was the room mate of Lloyd’s daughter, Gloria (Suzanne’s mother) whom Lemmon nicknamed ‘globug’. Hearing about his hardship, Lloyd offered him and his young family his beach house which they used for seven years whilst Lemmon built up his career. ‘Jack was the epitome of a Harold Lloyd ‘everyman’ even though he did incredible melodramas like The Apartment and The Days Of Wine And Roses. He wasn’t getting paid a lot then (He had just made It Should Happen To You with Judy Holliday). Dad said ‘just stay in the beach house, work on your career, and don’t worry about the rent.’ Dad believed in the ‘less is more approach; he always said ‘simple’ is best, don’t go too far because then it gets too fussy. You make the thing, you set it up but you’ve got to cut it off otherwise you won’t get the ‘big laugh’ – you won’t get anything.’ Lemmon was Lloyd’s first choice to play him in a biopic but it never came to fruition, however both men maintained a lifelong friendship.

Jack Lemmon & Harold Lloyd © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc.

Lloyd showed great loyalty to his staff, keeping them on the payroll throughout the year (even when production had stopped) and invited his friend and business colleague Roy Brooks to live at the family home of ‘Greenacres’, Lloyd’s sumptuous mansion in Benedict Canyon, Beverley Hills, which boasted 44 bedrooms, 26 bathrooms, 12 fountains, a 9-hole golf course and a property set on 16 acres. Roy stayed with the Lloyds for 40 years. ‘People never rang the doorbell’ says Suzanne, ‘They’d just knock or walk in’. Serving as a shooting location for movies including Westworld in 1973, it is now registered on the National Register of Historic Places. Lloyd only had two regrets when it came to his career. He had hoped to star on Broadway in Harvey (but his wife, Mildred Davis, didn’t want to pull their son, Harold Jr, out of High School) so the part went to Frank Fay. He was also interested in Mike Nichol’s version of The Sunshine Boys (but he was then suffering from terminal prostate cancer) so the film was produced with Walter Matthau and George Burns in the roles.

Harold & Suzanne Lloyd on the grounds of ‘Greenacres’ © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc

Now, in the 50th anniversary of Lloyd’s death, The Slapstick Festival in Bristol will screen Movie Crazy (1932) in March 2021 to mark their forthcoming festival, and this will be accompanied with a live talk with Suzanne. Lloyd takes the lead as the clumsy, ambitious film extra who wins the opportunity to work in Hollywood thanks to a mix-up with his photograph – which leads him to the path of a sultry actress Mary Sears (played by Constance Cummings). Upon its release, the film earned $1.4 million at the box office, and it remains a firm favourite of Suzanne’s. ‘This guy has such high hopes and dreams that somebody really wanted him in Hollywood and he’s desperate to be a film star, and he finds himself in an unbelievable situation where things keep happening to him’ says Suzanne. ‘It’s a sweet story that was filmed on the Paramount lot and can be adapted to any time. I’d love to remake it. It works because he moves effortlessly between different periods of time, and because he wasn’t caught up in a costume – he should be remembered as the ‘everyman’ who people relate to in their day to day lives.’

Harold & Suzanne Lloyd © Harold Lloyd Entertainment Inc