by Tim Lussier
(Note: Tim sent me this article by e-mail, and I felt it was something that everyone should read. Such an article, like others on this site, are not solicited, but are contributed, and are most welcome. Want to write for this site? Let Annette know!)
In this corner is the “champeen,” Charlie “The Little Tramp” Chaplin, the favorite of the odds makers. And in this corner we have the challenger, Harold “Go-Getter”Lloyd, whose record dares to defy the odds makers.
Between Chaplin and Lloyd, who is the “champeen,” the greatest of the silent clowns? Most often, historians refer to the “Big Four” – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon, and usually in that order.
In trying to determine which one of these rightfully deserves the crown, it can’t be ignored that Keaton’s popularity during the silent era was nowhere near that of Chaplin or Lloyd. As Richard Koszarski noted in AN EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT (University of California Press, 1994), “Modern acclaim tends to obscure the fact, but in box office terms, Keaton’s films were not in the same league as those of Chaplin and Lloyd.”
Langdon would have an even more difficult time claiming the crown. Although his first three features were extremely successful, even to the point of being compared with Chaplin, his subsequent features took a nosedive. “. . . if the rise was rapid, the descent was dizzying,” Walter Kerr said in THE SILENT CLOWNS (Alfred A. Knopf, 1975). The debate still rages as to whether Langdon was the author of his own genius or Frank Capra and others who were so much as part of the successful films.
So that leaves us Chaplin and Lloyd, but Lloyd can’t be knocked out in the first round. Placing these two head to head and toe to toe, Lloyd can put some pretty good moves on Chaplin.
Chaplin was the first to hit the screens with a feature. “The Kid” was released Jan. 6, 1921, and was a financial and critical success. “A Sailor-Made Man, although only four reels, is considered to be Lloyd’s first feature and was released at the end of that year on Dec. 25, 1921. It, too, was praised by the critics and returned more than six times its cost. No comparison in the quality of the two films is intended, however, as “A Sailor Made Man” must be considered a middleweight while “The Kid” is one of the heavyweights of the silent era. At least one modern critic has pointed out, however, that “The Kid” is more pathos and drama than comedy.
Although the two entered the feature film market at roughly the same time, for some unexplained reason Chaplin reverted back to shorts and followed “The Kid” with the two reeler “The Idle Class” later that same year, the two reeler “Pay Day” in 1922, and “The Pilgrim” at four reels in 1923.
In fairness to Chaplin, although “The Pilgrim” is not considered one of his features, it is the same length as “A Sailor Made Man,” which is considered Lloyd’s first feature. This could be due to the fact that Lloyd progressed from this point on with longer features without reverting back to the two reeler format as Chaplin had done.
Chaplin’s foray into the feature length comedy field came to a standstill for a full four years after “The Kid” until the release of “The Gold Rush” in 1925 (He had made “A Woman of Paris” for Edna Purviance in 1923, however). Meanwhile, Lloyd was charging ahead with “Grandma’s Boy” in 1922, “Doctor Jack” in 1922, “Safety Last” in 1923, “Why Worry?” in 1923, “Girl Shy” in 1924, and “Hot Water” in 1924. So, during the 1921-1924 period when Chaplin could claim only 14 reels of comedy, Lloyd produced over 38 reels. It must be noted, too, that as good as “The Kid” was and is, “The Idle Class,” “Pay Day,” and “The Pilgrim” are far from Chaplin’s best work. However, Lloyd was creating some of the most memorable comedy of the 1920’s during this time, and although all (there may be some debate about “Hot Water” being up to the standard of the other features) were excellent comedies with good, solid story lines, “Safety Last” and “Girl Shy” are classics and two of the best comedies from the entire silent era.
1925 is an interesting year, because it was the year both comedians releases what is considered by many to be their crowning achievements. Chaplin released the film by which he is most often remembered, “The Gold Rush.” It was a spectacular success and one of the top grossing films of the silent era. Lloyd released “The Freshman,” also a spectacular success, although it grossed only about 60 percent of what “The Gold Rush” did.
Once again, Chaplin was absent from the screen while Lloyd continued turning out not only critical and financial winners, but consistently high quality work. “For Heaven’s Sake” was released in 1926, “The Kid Brother” in 1927, and “Speedy” in 1928. Chaplin released only “The Circus” during this period (1928).
Lloyd’s far more frequent output during the 1920’s is sometimes used as a source of criticism, something akin to churning out sausages, while Chaplin’s films, appearing less frequent, supposedly had more “depth” and “soul.” If one is going to look at the “creative genius” of a film artist, wouldn’t there be some merit to an artist who is able to produce consistently high quality work on a regular basis as opposed to one whose creative genius was only brought before audiences on a sporadic, very infrequent basis? Who would be considered the more “creative” of the two. No, the frequency of Lloyd’s output can only be seen as a positive, not a negative.
Film grosses are often looked at in much the same way. On per film basis, none of Lloyd’s features earned what “The Gold Rush” or “The Circus” earned. However, Lloyd grossed over $15.7 million from his features while Chaplin grossed $10.5 million (this does not include his earnings from the three First National shorts mentioned earlier).
In looking at the “greatness”of a film artist, certainly popularity should be a consideration. Quite often film magazines polled their readers to determine who the most popular stars and films were. A 1924 Photoplay survey of fan favorites listed the top eight stars. Harold Lloyd was ranked seventh. Chaplin was not ranked at all.
The September, 1925, Photoplay ran a contest in which their readers voted for the “most popular” players. Lloyd was third behind Gloria Swanson and Ramon Novarro. Chaplin was fourteenth.
One study was quoted in AN EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT that used box office receipts and other factors from exhibitors’ reports to rank the most popular attractions. The study revealed “Doctor Jack” to be the sixth most popular film of 1922. “Safety Last” was fourth and “Why Worry?” fifth in 1923, and “Hot Water” and “Girl Shy” were tied for fourth in 1924. Admittedly, these were years in which Chaplin did not release a feature, however, in 1925, Lloyd was right up there with Chaplin as “The Gold Rush” ranked as the second most popular film with “The Freshman” in third. “Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks appear as the most consistently popular stars,” Koszarski observed from the study’s results.
Feature film grosses (silents only) during the twenties for Lloyd were as follows:
“A Sailor-Made Man” – $485,285
“Grandma’s Boy” – $975,623
“Doctor Jack” – $1,275,423
“Safety Last” – $1,588,545
“Why Worry” - $1,476,254
“The Freshman” - $2,651,167
“For Heaven’s Sake” – $2,591,460
“The Kid Brother” – $2,403,130
“Speedy” - $2,287,798
Chaplin’s feature film grosses for the decade are:
“The Kid” – $2,500,000
“Gold Rush” – $4,250,000
“Circus” - $3,800,000
It is easy to see why Koszarski concluded, “Harold Lloyd was not only the most popular comedian of the 1920’s but, by the close of the silent era, the biggest box office draw in motion pictures.”
So why is Lloyd so often given secondary status to Chaplin, and, in the opinion of some critics, to Keaton and Langdon, as well? Richard Griffith made an astute observation. “. . . it’s the optimism which chiefly sticks in the highbrow craw and accounts for the continued fundamental lack of interest in him and the continued rating of him below Chaplin, Keaton and even Langdon.” (“Introductory Note” to AN AMERICAN COMEDY by Harold Lloyd, Dover, 1971)
Several factors about Chaplin will always win out with critics when placed against Lloyd. There’s much more romance to the “Dickensian” childhood of Chaplin than the Tom Sawyer (at least Lloyd liked the comparison) childhood of Lloyd. The portrayal of a downtrodden “tramp” is much more “poetic” than that of the all-American boy “go-getter.” Chaplin “suffered” in his private life as we expect all good artists to do, including two tumultuous marriages in the 1920’s, whereas Lloyd married his leading lady and lived happily ever after in a big mansion in Beverly Hills. Lloyd’s character epitomized the twenties. Chaplin’s was more ethereal and was not as easily relegated to a certain decade or time period.
Chaplin also had the advantage of being “first.” To him goes much credit for bringing film comedy from the Mack Sennett knockabouts to the ballets of the Mutual shorts and then beyond. However, the growth of the two comedians through their careers is somewhat equivalent in that both began in knockabout types of comedy after which it took five to six years to start on their first feature films. By the way, Chaplin’s Keystones are no more dignified or sophisticated than Lloyd’s Lonesome Lukes. Also, Lloyd’s shorts just prior to entering feature film production are worthy competition for some of Chaplin’s shorts of the roughly same period such as “Pay Day,” “A Day’s Pleasure,” “The Pilgrim,” etc.
In his 1983 biography of Harold Lloyd, HAROLD LLOYD: THE MAN ON THE CLOCK, Tom Dardis says, “But of the three (Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd), only Lloyd has not received full critical and public appreciation of his genius. Although his best work is obviously worthy of comparison with the best work of Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd’s part in establishing silent film comedy as a major art still has not been fully understood or completely affirmed.”
Of course, Lloyd himself is somewhat to blame for this. Although he carefully preserved all of his films, he withheld them from public view for much too long. Outside of a 1953 re-release of “The Freshman” and a couple of compilation films in the sixties, little could be seen of Lloyd’s work until Time-Life added some corny dialogue and released chopped up versions of his films in a series of half-hour television shows in the 1970’s. Blackhawk Films released fairly complete Super 8mm versions of many of the Lloyd features in the late 1970’s which, along with Kevin Brownlow’s THE PARADE’S GONE BY (University of California Press) in 1968, Walter Kerr’s THE SILENT CLOWNS in 1975, a 1974 biography by Richard Schickel (HAROLD LLOYD: THE SHAPE OF LAUGHTER, New York Graphic Society) and a 1977 biography by Adam Reilly (HAROLD LLOYD: THE KING OF DAREDEVIL COMEDY), helped bring a renewed awareness of his genius. Unfortunately, the Blackhawk releases were not available for long, and collectors had to wait until the 1990’s for five of his features to be released on videotape. They, too, have been withdrawn after a short time on the market.
The films of Chaplin and Keaton have been more readily available Harold Lloyd’s work. It seems collectors have had Chaplin’s and Keaton’s masterpieces, “The Gold Rush” and “The General”, available to them forever since they slipped into the public domain category. Just think what the difference may have been had “The Freshman,” for example, also been so easily viewed.
So, does Lloyd score a technical knockout, or does it go to the judges leaving Chaplin as the undefeated “champeen?” Just as three judges will observe a boxing match and many times be unable to agree on the winner, critics and film buffs alike will always differ on who is the best comedian. It’s too much of a personal opinion that is influenced by the viewer’s background, what appeals to him or her, and what the viewer may find humorous. William K. Everson expressed it well when he said, “The ongoing question as to who was the greatest of the silent comedians is a futile and unanswerable one. The best of them all operated on such different planes that direct comparison is impossible, and in any case humor is such an intensely personal experience . . . that it is impossible to come up with any set of constants by which all silent screen comedy could be judged.” (HAROLD LLOYD: THE KING OF DAREDEVIL COMEDY)
By looking at the facts, and, of course viewing the films, one may still be unable to determine a “champeen,” but it does become readily evident that the work of Harold Lloyd deserves to be held in the same high esteem as the best of them. No one will knock him
out, and the best a contender can hope for with Harold Lloyd in the ring is a split decision.