Chaplin, Keaton - and Lloyd
New York's Film Forum offers retrospective of this lesser-known silent comic from the 1920s
NEW YORK — EVERYONE who likes silent comedy, from die-hard fans to casual channel-switchers, has a mental image of Harold Lloyd's greatest moment. There he is on the side of a skyscraper - it must be miles above the street, and he's grabbed a clock so he won't fall, but the minute-hand is bending away from the clockface, and Lloyd is dangling over the precipice below....
The movie is "Safety Last," and it has entered the film-history books as one of the most fondly remembered comedies of the 1920s. It is also one of the premier attractions in "Harold Lloyd 100: A Centennial Retrospective," a tribute at Manhattan's enterprising Film Forum, designed to celebrate Lloyd's artistry, a century after his birth.
As the most famous picture of Lloyd's career, "Safety Last" serves as an excellent symbol for his work as a whole. If this much-loved classic has done much to secure his reputation as a silent clown, however, its vast popularity has also overshadowed his many other achievements.
Even among his admirers, how many know that Lloyd appeared in more films than his two chief competitors - Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton - put together? That he rivaled or surpassed both of them in ticket sales? That he played an active role in making his films as well in starring in them, although he never took public credit for this?
Lloyd was partly responsible for his third-place position (behind Chaplin and Keaton), in the popular imagination.
In a Film Comment article, film historian Kevin Brownlow writes that Lloyd was so nervous about how audiences would react to his later movies that he withheld the films from distribution, so that only some very early pictures (made before his talent blossomed around 1920) were widely available for viewing.
An effort to reintroduce his work after his death in the early '70s was also botched, adding narrations and showy music scores to movies that don't need extra gimmicks.
The extensive Film Forum show promises to be a major step in the rehabilitation of Lloyd's reputation. Organized by Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming, it consists of 37 films including all of Lloyd's features - silent and sound alike - and a large selection of shorts.
"There's always someone who defines a generation," said Mr. Goldstein when asked what made Lloyd such a successful screen comedian, "and Lloyd defined the '20s better than almost anyone else. Chaplin was steeped in Victorian times, and Keaton was in another universe altogether - almost too weird for the really big mass audience. Lloyd epitomized the American go-getter, but it was the nice side of the go-getter."
Goldstein says that looking at Lloyd's movies gives a privileged glimpse into the 1920s, which was the decade of his greatest success.
"In the '20s there was a feeling that anything was possible with enough gumption and will power," he notes. "Lloyd played an ordinary guy who just shlumps along until he realizes he has to solve a problem. Then he finds qualities he didn't know he had, and pulls off amazing things - defeating the villain, winning his loved one.
"He was someone people could really identify with," Goldstein adds, "even as a romantic star - almost like Douglas Fairbanks, with his youthful vitality and acrobatic grace.
"He was a real crossover comedian, and he reminded people that even a movie clown didn't have to be grotesque to be funny. He showed there was comedy in everyday life."
Highlights of the Lloyd retrospective range from "The Freshman," the 1925 picture that became his biggest box-office hit, to 1920 comedies like "Captain Kidd's Kids" and "An Eastern Westerner."
A program of Lonesome Luke pictures and early one-reelers featuring "the glasses character," are also being shown.
Later movies include "The Cat's Paw" from 1934 and "Professor Beware" from 1938, as well as the 1962 compilation film "Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy." @BODYTEXT =
LSO on view is "The Sin of Harold Diddlebock," made by Preston Sturges in 1947 - just before Lloyd retired from the movie world - and meant as a tribute to Lloyd by one of the Hollywood giants he strongly influenced.
Although it isn't one of Sturges's greatest comedies, it has some marvelous Lloyd moments, and should be seen in its original version rather than the altered edition ("Mad Wednesday") that producer Howard Hughes initially released.
All films in the retrospective will be shown in complete 35-mm prints, many of them from Lloyd's personal collection. That in itself is cause for celebration.
* "Harold Lloyd 100: A Centennial Retrospective," began April 30 and runs through June 3 at Manhattan's Film Forum.