In an era where CGI takes the danger out of acting and those who do their own stunts make sure we know about it in great detail it maybe just a little hard to appreciate just what Harold Lloyd did for cinema. He was a man who loved the challenge of the scene and understood just how that scene needed to appear on the camera – irrelevant to what dangers and damage the scene might do to him. He was a pioneer, with a pair of glasses and a smile… hooray for Harold Lloyd!
Harold Clayton Lloyd, Sr. was born in Burchard, Nebraska, on April 20th 1893, to James Darsie Lloyd and Sarah Elisabeth Fraser. From the age of three Lloyd began acting in the theatre but by the year 1910 Lloyd’s father had succumbed to several failed business ventures leading to his Parents divorce. Lloyd moved with his Father to San Diego.
Once established in California (approx 1912), Lloyd began acting in a variety of one-reel film comedies – many of these for Thomas Edison’s motion picture company. One of his first roles involved him playing the part of a Yaqui Indian in The Old Monk’s Tale.
Lloyd moved to Los Angeles when he was twenty years old and began to appear in a wide variety of roles in various Keystone comedies. He was also hired by Universal as an extra and soon became friends with aspiring filmmaker, Hal Roach. Lloyd began collaborating with Roach who had formed his own studio in 1913. Roach and Lloyd created Lonesome Luke, similar to and playing off the success of Charlie Chaplin films.
Lloyd hired Bebe Daniels as a supporting actress in 1914; the two of them were involved romantically and were known as “The Boy” and “The Girl.”
By 1918, Lloyd and Roach had begun to develop his character the “Glass” character – a bold move into developing a character that separated Lloyd from his contemporaries. The “Glass” character is said to have been created after Roach suggested that Harold was too handsome to do comedy without some sort of disguise. To create his new character Lloyd donned a pair of lensless horn-rimmed eyeglasses but wore normal clothing (and usually went by the named “Harold” onscreen); previously, he had worn a fake mustache and ill-fitting clothes as the Chaplinesque “Lonesome Luke”.
“When I adopted the glasses,” he recalled in a 1962 interview with Harry Reasoner, “it more or less put me in a different category because I became a human being. He was a kid that you would meet next door, across the street, but at the same time I could still do all the crazy things that we did before, but you believed them. They were natural and the romance could be believable.” Unlike most silent comedy personae, “Harold” was never typecast to a social class, but he was always striving for success and recognition. Within the first few years of the character’s debut, he had portrayed social ranks ranging from a starving vagrant in From Hand to Mouth to a wealthy socialite in Captain Kidd’s Kids.
Lloyd and Roach parted ways in 1924, and Lloyd became the independent producer of his own films. These included his most accomplished mature features Girl Shy, The Freshman (his highest-grossing silent feature), The Kid Brother, and Speedy, his final silent film.
Welcome Danger (1929) was originally a silent film but Lloyd decided late in the production to remake it with dialogue. Released a few weeks before the start of the Great Depression, Welcome Danger was a huge financial success, with audiences eager to hear Lloyd’s voice on film. Lloyd’s rate of film releases, which had been one or two a year in the 1920’s, slowed to about one every two years until 1938.
Lloyd formed his own independent film production company in 1924 – the Harold Lloyd Film Corporation, with his films distributed by Pathé and later Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox. Lloyd was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Lloyd received the first of his two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1927. He was the fourth ever concrete ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, preserving his handprints, footprints, and autograph, along with the outline of his famed glasses.
The films he released during this time were: Feet First, with a similar scenario to Safety Last which found him clinging to a skyscraper at the climax; Movie Crazy with Constance Cummings; The Cat’s-Paw, which was a dark political comedy and a big departure for Lloyd; and The Milky Way, which was Lloyd’s only attempt at the fashionable genre of the screwball comedy film.
To this point the films had been produced by Lloyd’s company. However, his go-getting screen character was out of touch with Great Depression movie audiences of the 1930’s. As the length of time between his film releases increased, his popularity declined, as did the fortunes of his production company. His final film of the decade, Professor Beware, was made by the Paramount staff, with Lloyd functioning only as actor and partial financier.
On March 23, 1937, Lloyd sold the land of his studio, Harold Lloyd Motion Picture Company, to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The location is now the site of the Los Angeles California Temple. He then went onto produce a few comedies for RKO Radio Pictures in the early 1940’s but otherwise retired from the screen until 1947.
He returned for an additional starring appearance in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, an ill-fated homage to Lloyd’s career, directed by Preston Sturges and financed by Howard Hughes. This film had the inspired idea of following Harold’s Jazz Age, optimistic character from The Freshman into the Great Depression years. Diddlebock opened with footage from The Freshman (for which Lloyd was paid a royalty of $50,000, matching his actor’s fee) and Lloyd was sufficiently youthful-looking to match the older scenes quite well. Lloyd and Sturges had different conceptions of the material and fought frequently during the shoot; Lloyd was particularly concerned that while Sturges had spent three to four months on the script of the first third of the film, “the last two thirds of it he wrote in a week or less”. The finished film was released briefly in 1947, then shelved by producer Hughes. Hughes issued a recut version of the film in 1951 through RKO under the title Mad Wednesday. Such was Lloyd’s disdain that he sued Howard Hughes, the California Corporation and RKO for damages to his reputation “as an outstanding motion picture star and personality”, eventually accepting a $30,000 settlement.
In October 1944, Lloyd emerged as the director and host of The Old Gold Comedy Theater, an NBC radio anthology series; this continued until June 1945.
Lloyd remained involved in a number of other interests, including civic and charity work. Inspired by having overcome his own serious injuries and burns, he was very active as a Freemason and Shriner with the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children.
He appeared as himself on several television shows during his retirement, first on Ed Sullivan’s variety show Toast of the Town on June 5th 1949, and again on July 6th 1958. He appeared as the Mystery Guest on What’s My Line? on April 26th 1953, and twice on This Is Your Life: on March 10th 1954 for Mack Sennett, and again on December 14th 1955, on his own episode. During both appearances, Lloyd’s hand injury can clearly be seen
In 1953 Lloyd received an Academy Honorary Award for being a “master comedian and good citizen”. The second citation was a snub to Chaplin, who at that point had fallen foul of McCarthyism and who had had his entry visa to the United States revoked. Regardless of the political overtones, Lloyd accepted the award in good spirit.
Sadly, Lloyd died at age 77 years old from prostate cancer on March 8th 1971, in Beverly Hills, California but his legend lives on. In 1994, he was honored with his image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.