The Importance of Harold Lloyd

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.

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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.

Script Review: Mary Rose, the Hitchcock Classic That Never Was

As you may know by now, I’m a major fan of the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Being a fan of director of such notoriety has it’s benefits: namely, there are tons of reading material about him out there. The two I have read thus far, Hitchcock/Truffaut and Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light were highly informative reads. In both books, a number of films Hitchcock wanted to make but never did came up. There are actually a great number of projects that never came to pass for various reasons. The one that managed to come up over and over again in the books was an adaptation of the play Mary Rose.

From descriptions, it seems as though the play was a festering obsession of Hitchcock’s. He seems to have first seen the play in 1920, during the original run, and it stuck with him from that time. Numerous times throughout his career, attempts were made to make the film. His first pitch came early in his US career in the 1940s. After being denied then, Hitchcock had Jay Presson Allen, writer of Marnie, write a screenplay following the finish of that film in 1964. Again, he was denied. Hitchcock even later claimed a future contract said he could make any film, except for Mary Rose. And yet, he still thought of making it always.

What kept Hitchcock so perpetually obsessed with it? Having read the screenplay written by Allen, I completely understand. The complete plot summary (spoilers, obviously) I will sum up here:

The script opens with a narrator informing us of a mysterious island, after filling us with a sense of dread that something is wrong with the place, we then turn to an old house connected to the island somehow. Kenneth, a prisoner of war for many years, returns back to his childhood home. It’s rundown, and in the old drawing room he finds an elderly caretaker. She warns him not to go into the room that once was his bedroom. After much prodding, she admits there is a ghost there, and leaves Kenneth alone to look inside if he wishes.

From there, we jump back in time to when the drawing room was active. Mary Rose, age 18, informs her parents that she wants to marry a man named Simon. Simon comes in to speak to them alone, and they inform him they must let him know a secret about Mary Rose she is not aware of. The story jumps back in time yet again.

Mary Rose and her family visited the island we saw earlier as a small child. She was on the smaller island while her father was fishing in between the two islands. The father turns his back to the water to begin rowing, and when he reaches the other side, she’s gone. The whole island is searched, and she is not found. Weeks later, she is found in the spot she disappeared from, not harmed and having no memory of being gone. To her, no time as passed. The only adverse sign as she grows up is that she sometimes “hears” things.

Years later, Mary Rose and Simon have a young child. They visit the little small island from her childhood. A local man, the narrator who began the story, tells them of the legend of a girl who went missing and came back unharmed, Mary Rose and Simon talk about odd things: fearing growing old, wanting to stay young, hoping that her child Kenneth will one day hold her when he’s grown up. Suddenly, Mary Rose hears voices calling her, and she disappears again.

Eighteen years later, the family holds out hope that Kenneth will come home one day alive. A call comes in that Mary Rose is alive and is on her way. Simon kisses her outside in the darkness, and then notices with horror that she has not aged at all and has no concept that any time has passed. She equally reacts with horror upon seeing that Simon and her parents are much older. Panicking, she demands to see her son, and when she is told he was taken away, she dies.

Now we’re back to where we started. Kenneth opens the door and finds himself looking at the ghost of Mary Rose. At first, she does not know who he is, and then becomes suspicious that this man must have taken her son away. She pulls a knife on him, but he is eventually able to convince her that he is Kenneth, her son now grown. Kenneth holds her as she once requested, and afterwards she hears the voices again and vanishes off to the island.

And that is how it ends.

It is truly unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is at times horrifying, suspenseful and touching. The final act, Mary Rose’s return to the conclusion is all incredibly heartbreaking and moving. The final scene with her reunion with Kenneth is particularly touching. It’s hard to express just how engrossing this surreal tale is. It has stuck with me and I don’t think I’ll soon forget it. It’s a powerful story dealing with love, loss, death and trying to hold on to youth.

If there was any doubt that Hitchcock could have turned this is into a wonderful film, consider the work he did and what he had planned: he procured the original music used in the play, and intricately planned out a way to shoot the ghost of Mary Rose with lights lined inside her dress.

The play has, somehow, never been adapted into a film. Allen attempted to get it made later on, but gave up in 1987. An attempt was also made to get it off the ground in 2000 as a Melanie Griffith vehicle, but that never materialized.

How good could this have been had Hitchcock made it? With his passion for the subject, his meticulous planning and his obvious skill, I have no doubt it would have been great. One thing I know is that like Hitchcock, I will likely never forget this magical story now that I have read it. Hopefully one day it is given the proper film treatment.

I cannot recommend reading the script enough. It can be read here.

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The Joy of Classic Films on Blu-Ray

For years and years, I’ve heard people talk online about the importance of certain audio or video quality. As every band I like releases a new album, there’s bound to be some people who jump to their feet and announce the audio quality is so horrible they can’t even listen to it, while I meanwhile think the quality sounds just fine. While others have opined for lossless audio files, it’s never been a concern for me.

The same would be true for classic films. It was never much of concern for me what the aspect ratio was, or anything like that. I was, after all, used to seeing certain old films that looked like the picture had been broadcast through a potato. The constant hissing that exists in many early talkies still drove me nuts, but aside from that I didn’t care much about what I saw. I could put up with popping and all that. No big deal, right?

All that changed when I got a Blu-Ray player this past Christmas.

Along with that, I got a couple of recent movies on Blu-Ray. The first I ended up seeing on there was Midnight in Paris, and I was in awe of how fantastic the city of Paris looked in the picture quality. It was clear right away that recent movies looked perfect on Blu-Ray. But, no surprise here, I don’t watch a lot of new movies. The question became just how good classic old films could look on Blu-Ray. I was skeptical that it would be worth it, but I had to give it a shot.

The first two, which I was able to pick up cheaply, were Sunset Boulevard and City Lights. I was highly impressed and my view of how to watch classic films changed forever.

It was pretty shocking how good they both looked. City Lights in particular was the best looking silent film print I had ever seen. Having been so used to terribly deteriorating silents, seeing one that looked so pristine was a while new experience. Sunset Boulevard looked even better in it’s restored version (not to mention tons of extras).

But in some ways, those films didn’t provide the full Blu-Ray experience. Neither are in color, and because their original aspect ratios were used (as they should be) they weren’t in 16:9. Then I saw North by Northwest. The movie seems almost more alive in this restored version. The colors pop off the screen and the landscape of outdoor scenes like the crop dust plane have never looked better.

So yes, now I do care a lot more about picture quality. When something’s not in 16:9, I’m kind of disappointed. But more importantly, I’ve learned that restored classic films are absolutely worth getting. It’s a whole new way to experience these films in absolute clarity.

So in short: join the dark side.

TCM Silent Film Schedule: March

TCM’s regular Silent Film Sunday feature went on hiatus for 31 Days of Oscar. And although that is now over, it does not return until March 16, the second Sunday in the month (March 9 is honoring Shirley Temple). But there’s great news for silent film fans, even with the shortened schedule. Through the latter half of the month, TCM will air 11 different silent films. There are some truly great films being shown, so here’s the full rundown:

16th
The Scar of Shame: This film carries quite a lot of historical significance. It’s one of the earliest examples of a race film out there, and features an all African-American. The film was the final work of the Colored Players Film Corporation. The company produced only four films, and only this and one other survive to this day.

19th
Beau Brummel: This historical drama starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor took place during their affair. The film survives in varying lengths, and based on the TCM website, it looks like they’re airing the full version.

Two Arabian Knights: Another Mary Astor film, this won Best Comic Direction at the first Academy Awards, the only time comic direction had it’s own category.

21st

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The Gold Rush was only Charlie Chaplin’s third full length feature, and his second comedic feature. It is also reportedly the highest grossing silent comedy of all time. If you haven’t seen this one yet, make sure you do. It’s Chaplin operating at the height of his abilities, and is one of the best silent comedies you’ll ever see.

23rd
Girl Shy: Another great silent comedy is featured here, this one starring Harold Lloyd. After having worked alongside Hal Roach for nearly his entire career, this was his first independent production. It was the latest in a series of big hits for Lloyd.

26th
West of Zanzibar: This is a film made special by both the director and the cast. Those familiar with the director Tod Browning know that he was a master a creating creepy and unsettling environments. This film is no different. Making it even better are the two leading men: Lon Chaney and Lionel Barrymore. Chaney and Browning were always a great combination, and this time is no different.

28th
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: This 1920 version is one of the more well known adaptations of the story. With a great performance by John Barrymore, it is certainly worthy of viewing.

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One of DW Griffith’s greatest epics, it’s also the last time he worked with his frequent collaborators Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Following this film, the commercial decline of Griffith’s career began.

Sherlock Holmes: This 1922 Holmes film stars John Barrymore, and is also notable for having the debut of William Powell and Roland Young. The film was lost until the 1970s, at which point it was partially restored. The complete version is still not available.

The Racket: This great crime picture was one of the films nominated for the top prize at the first Academy Awards. Dark and gritty, it’s filled with realistic characters and great character actors.

30th
The First Auto: This comedy about the transition of people traveling from horses to cars is mostly silent. There are, however, a few lines of dialogue due to the Vitaphone system, the same technology that made The Jazz Singer possible.

The Oscar Categories That Are No Longer with Us

There have been a ton of Oscar related posts on this blog lately, so if you’re sick of them–good news! This will be the last one for approximately one year. But this last one is pretty interesting. By now we’re all pretty familiar with the categories in the Oscars. The categories have been mostly pretty stable for several decades now. But that wasn’t always the case.

The first couple decades of the awards were a time of change with the awards. Awards like the supporting actor categories didn’t exist for the first few years, and it wasn’t until the early 1940s that documentaries had awards. And in the early years, there were also numerous categories that didn’t survive long. Three didn’t even make past the first ceremony. Let’s take a look at these short-lived early Oscar categories.

Unique and Artistic Production
It existed: 1st year only

This award, at the first ceremony, was treated as equal with Outstanding Picture (before it was renamed to Best Picture). While Wings took home outstanding picture, while Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, took home Unique and Artistic Production. Only Best Picture remained the following year, and the Academy later determined that Wings was the sole winner of the top honor.

Best Title Writing
It existed: 1st year only

It’s obvious why this category didn’t survive past the first year. By the next year, silent films were a thing of the past, eliminating any need for the category. The Red Mill, directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle under a pseudonym, was the winner.

Best Engineering Effects
It existed: 1st year only

Wings took home this only award, and it makes sense considering the impressive effects used in the film. The other two nominees were individuals with no specific films attached to them.

Best Assistant Director
It existed: 6th-10th

This award had a pretty unique history in just a span of a few years. The first year, seven different assistant directors were named the winner–the most for any single award by a wide margin (Best Documentary had four winners it’s first year). The award was given to one assistant director from each major studio. There were eleven other nominees that year, from various studios. No specific films were named.

In all future years, there was only one winner, and specific films were named. The number of nominees varied from then on out, as few as three or as many as five. No one won more than once, but there are some superlatives:

-Eric G. Stacey had the most nominations with three (no wins).
-John Waters, Clem Beauchamp and Scott Beal all have a win and one other nomination.

Best Dance Direction
It existed: 8th-10th

In the few years this category existed, it was dominated by the same group of people, although no one won more than once. Bugsby Berkeley, Hermes Pan, Dave Gould and Bobby Connolly were all nominated every year the award was around.

The Academy Juveline Award
It existed: 7th-33rd (intermittently)

This honorary Oscar was only given out on select years, beginning with the 7th ceremony. All the child actors given the award were no older than 18, and the specific honor received varied. Some stars were cited for specific work in a movie, or for substantial work the entirety of the year. In other cases, like Deanna Durbin, the honor was presented in a different way: “For their significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement.”

The miniature sized Oscar appeared three years in a row once, from 1944-1946. Five years was the longest gap in which it didn’t appear. Hayley Mills won the final one in 1961, and two years later Patty Duke (age 16) won for Best Supporting Actress. From that point on, all children were nominated in the normal categories.