If silent comedy had a holy trinity, the three people it would consist of are pretty obvious: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. But as time has gone on, Keaton and Chaplin seem to have taken more prominent roles in the annals of film history. Lloyd still has the iconic film image of hanging from the clock tower in Safety Last!, but is his role in film history understated? Consider that Lloyd was more prolific than both, and by my own personal estimation, was a more effective romantic lead than either Keaton or Chaplin. Let’s take a brief look at the history of Lloyd, and see if his notoriety and importance is under reported.
The film careers of Lloyd and producer Hal Roach began together. Harold Lloyd comedies were the first works produced by Roach, beginning in 1915. Lloyd was prolific right from the start, although he would not be easily recognizable in his early roles. The distinct glasses character wouldn’t emerge for a couple of years. Before that, Lloyd would play a couple of different characters. The first was a character by the name of Willie Work, and according to the filmography available, this character only made a few appearances in 1915. From there, Lloyd moved onto a character he got a lot of use of, Lonesome Luke.
The character was, as you can no doubt tell, greatly inspired by Chaplin’s Tramp character, right down to a nearly identical look. Even if it was essentially a copy, the shorts were successful. From 1915 to 1917, 68 Lonesome Luke shorts were produced. Also in 1917 (before all of the Lonesome Luke shorts had been released), he debuted the glasses/boy character that would bring him superstardom.
From 1917 through 1921, Lloyd with his new character would become even more prolific. In total, there were 94 shorts made in that time, with a peak of 39 in 1919. His success continued to grow, and in 1921 Lloyd and Roach made the move to features. Lloyd would never do another short again, save for a later Our Gang short where he played himself.
His first feature, A Sailor Made Man, clocked in at only a little over forty minutes. But after it’s success (approximately half a million at the box office), the classic Grandma’s Boy and Dr. Jack (both released in 1922) were longer at an hour. Grandma’s Boy in particular was very successful, more than doubling what A Sailor Made Man made.
In 1923, Lloyd again produced two features, with the all time classic Safety Last! extending the length of his features even longer. Why Worry, the second film released that year, marked the final collaboration between Lloyd and Roach.
Unlike Harry Langdon, who faltered when moving in to his own studio, Lloyd’s new production company created films just as good. The first year on his own, he released Hot Water and the fantastic Girl Shy. 1925 brought another classic, The Freshman, and 1926 brought For Heaven’s Sake. That feature was both his most successful film up to that point, and the 12th highest grossing silent film overall. His final two silents silents were The Kid Brother and Speedy, released in ’27 and ’28.
Lloyd’s talkie debut with Welcome Danger was a major success, surpassing the record he set with For Heaven’s Sake. Success in talkies was short lived, however. The successes quickly declined, and that has partially been blamed on his go-getter attitude not working in the Depression era. He made a total of six talkies through 1938. After Professor Beware finished production, Lloyd sold his studio and appeared finished.
A decade later, Lloyd was convinced to come out of retirement by Preston Sturges, which sounds like a perfect combination on paper. In reality, things didn’t work out so well. Sturges was on the downswing of his career and the production was riddled with problems. The two men clashed and it ended up way over budget. After bad reviews, Howard Hughes pulled it from theaters almost immediately and took three years to reshoot, edit and re-release it. This troubled production was the last film appearance by Lloyd.
Perhaps Lloyd’s early fading from the limelight in the 30s played a part in him not getting enough recognition. Chaplin and Keaton both stayed in the public eye much more in the ensuing decades. Chaplin’s amount of work slowed, but he still had yet to release one of his best pieces (The Great Dictator) by the time Lloyd mostly retired in 1938. He then continued to sporadically direct films until 1967. For Keaton, the advent of TV led to a bit of a career resurgence, and he landed many smaller roles in big projects.
Overall, the quality of Lloyd’s work cannot be understated. All time classics were churned out at an incredibly high pace. 1922-1925 alone saw Grandma’s Boy, Safety Last!, Girl Shy and The Freshman released, all incredible films.
His films were also different that Keaton and Chaplin in turns of their strengths. Keaton’s physical comedy was undoubtedly more memorable, an endless fury of astounding gags crowding the whole picture. Chaplin, on the other hand, clearly handled drama and pathos the best. I would argue that Lloyd is better at the romantic comedy and as a romantic lead than either of them. He practically oozes charm, kindness and sympathy. The films still hold up as incredibly cute and charming romantic comedies. And on top of that, he was a master at the incredibly suspenseful and elaborate conclusions. Not only were his epic final acts hilarious, but they were thrilling as well.
Lloyd produced a number of spectacular films, more in a short period of time than most people have ever made. The Freshman was recently released on Blu-Ray/DVD, and Safety Last! airs on TCM April 1 at 6am EST.