He is mainly remembered today for his antics on a skyscraper clock, but the life and career of Harold Lloyd remain much more diverse and exciting than any single image. This man lived, indeed, the American Success story.
HAROLD CLAYTON LLOYD was born in Burchard, Nebraska, on April 20, 1893, the second son of James Darsie and Elizabeth Fraser Lloyd. During his childhood, they lived, at various times, in the towns of Pawnee City, Humboldt, Beatrice, and Omaha, Nebraska, and Fort Collins, Durango, and Denver, Colorado. The reason for this nomadic existence was his father’s difficulty in keeping a job; it was this inconsistency that led Elizabeth to divorce her husband, nicknamed “Foxy,” in 1910. The two boys (elder brother Gaylord Fraser Lloyd was born in 1888, and died in 1943) shuffled between mother and father for a time, before making permanent home with Foxy.
Throughout Harold’s childhood, he shared with his mother a passion for the theatre, and engaged in amateur theatrics for most of his adolescence. In 1906, young Harold had met the single greatest influence on his histrionic art, actor and mentor John Lane Connor: “Point by point he went over my performance as a mechanic goes over a motor, pointed out bad timing, wrong emphasis, and other A B C errors of technic.”
In 1912, Foxy, now working for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, had an accident, which produced a monetary settlement of three thousand dollars. With this money, the Lloyd men could really live, but the question was: where? The flip of a coin sent the men to San Diego, California, where Connor had established a dramatic school, which Harold joined immediately, as both a student and an instructor.
It wasn’t long, however, before Harold bowed to the lure of “cellu-Lloyd” – a 1913 film debut led to sporadic extra work for Edison, Keystone, and Universal. While at Universal City, Lloyd met a fellow extra, Hal Roach, who would later establish his own production house, The Rolin Film Company, and take on Lloyd as principal talent. Together, the young men would learn how to make films, and would grow to virtually define film comedy in the process.
From the beginning, the new character found favor with audiences. With each film, reviews got more and more favorable. In April 1919, Lloyd signed a contract for a series of longer, and more sophisticated, two-reel comedies, at a greater salary. Life seemed to be just starting for the comic.
A staggering number of hobbies and interests filled Lloyd’s life outside of his cinematic pursuits – Harold was always a curious being. His penchants for photography, bowling, magic, painting, microscopy, handball, etc., were met with investigation and mastery. His passions – legendary romantic trysts with his leading ladies, and photo sessions with nude models – reveal a very human being with superhuman tastes. A red-blooded American boy. Lloyd married his leading lady, Mildred Davis, on February 10, 1923, and together they raised three children at Greenacres, their spectacular 16-acre Beverly Hills estate. Gloria, born in 1923, still lives in Los Angeles. Peggy, adopted in 1930, died in 1986. Harold, Jr., born in 1931, died three months after his father in 1971. Mildred, Lloyd’s wife of forty-six years, died on August 18, 1969, at 68.
Harold Lloyd’s final public appearance found him in London, at the Cinema City Exhibition celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of film. He showed his classic, The Kid Brother, to the cheers of appreciative audiences and, four months before his death, waxed career nostalgic: “My humor was never cruel or cynical. I just took life and poked fun at it. We made it so it could be understood the world over, without language barriers. We seem to have conquered the time barrier, too.”
Harold Clayton Lloyd succumbed to prostate cancer on March 8, 1971, at 77. He died in bed, at his beloved Greenacres, the exquisite estate built upon very laugh that his films inspired.
As new generations are introduced to Harold Lloyd’s work and legend, the magic behind the glasses will continue to conjure the quintessential American Success Story. He cared about his work, and understood his legacy: “I want to leave something worthwhile on the screen … Something with guts, not just the froth of old.” Truth be told: every time we enjoy his films, we see that he met his goal.