Harold Lloyd: The American Anti-Auteurist

by David B. Pearson

Many thanks to David Pearson for contributing this stimulating piece for cyber-posterity.

It is my pleasure to share his insightful rantings!!!

Sitting here, as I am, in my little (and not so little) world of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, I sometimes play a little fantasy in my head. I imagine Roscoe at home, after work, inviting Charlie Chaplin and others to look at each other’s day’s rushes in the projection room. Roscoe’s Comique family — Buster, Al and Luke— are of course all there. Charlie brings Stan with him. Rollie plays projectionist. And they all talk shop (except Mabel Normand — who says this is boring — and takes off!) Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton, and Charley Chase could also show up. Even Snub Pollard.

But, for the life of me, I can’t see Harold Lloyd there.

I see Harold forever dancing the night away with Bebe Daniels. Or busy with the Shriners. Or doing some other project.

But I can’t see him talking with the others. He’s a different creature — a breed apart.

Now, I don’t mean that Harold wasn’t friends with the other great comedians. He most certainly was to Roscoe. For example, shortly after Arbuckle’s acquittal from the trials that made him a pariah in Hollywood, Harold Lloyd, along with Buster Keaton and others, bravely appeared with Roscoe in “Character Studies” a Carter DeHaven gag film. Likewise, when a “prop” bomb nearly killed Lloyd during the making of Haunted Spooks, Arbuckle was among the first to telegram his best wishes. No, friendship wasn’t the problem.

Harold Lloyd was, and is still, viewed as an outsider.

While not a vaudevillian, Harold, in essence, got the training anyway. But instead of the stage, he got in an endless stream of one and two-reelers. He started in 1915 from scratch. He looked at what Chaplin was doing, and tried copying it into his first “Lonesome Luke” films. They probably weren’t very good, but good enough for Hal Roach to sell them. Then, on a weekly basis, Harold made more movies. Then some more. And some more after that. He kept what worked, dropped what didn’t. After a while, he figured out that “Lonesome Luke” could only carry so far. So he bravely started over with a new character of his own: the “glasses” character he’s known for.

More shorts followed.

And more still. A total of over 170.

By 1919, Harold Lloyd had become darned funny.

By 1922, he was more popular than Chaplin, and remained number one throughout the 1920s. His films clobbered Buster Keaton’s on a head-to-head basis.

Yet today people (even silent comedy experts) have a hard time getting into Harold Lloyd. While Chaplin and Keaton essays abound, debate around Harold Lloyd is frighteningly absent.

Harold Lloyd’s non-vaudevillian experience creates a whole set of unusual problems in studying him that the rules that film scholars go by simply fall apart. Harold Lloyd and his films not only fail to work inside the “Auteur” theory — he openly rejects them!

This reality, combined with the historical/political direction film criticism has taken, has crippled Harold Lloyd’s rightful position as one of the kings of comedy.

You see, Charlie and Buster and Roscoe and Harry and Stan and the rest were vaudevillians. They were each, in his own way, highly stylistic. Each filling their own memorable niche in vaudeville, and translated that niche into their Hollywood styles. Chaplin was “The Tramp;” Keaton was “Buster;” Arbuckle was “Fatty;” Langdon was “The Baby;” and so forth. These characters are the things that define each of their comedies.

Not so with Harold Lloyd. Lloyd’s characters are diverse: Each with a different problem.

A stutterer.

A hypochondriac.

A husband with lousy in-laws.

A coward.

A uncaring rich guy.

A guy trying to be a success in business.

A guy who can’t hold a job.

A guy wanting to be popular.

A guy just wanting respect.

And a guy who just helps other people with THEIR problems.

The major theme to Harold’s films is the overcoming of these character conflicts by “being himself.” By being himself (that regular fellow), Harold triumphs over armies, crooks, tall buildings, and his in-laws. This diversity of Harold’s character was very much on purpose. Like Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, he is the “Everyman.” He is not playing inside a niche. He can play anything.

As I said, most other silent comics were vaudevillians. Vaudeville is a European variety entertainment tradition dating back to Renaissance Italy.

“European” and “American” are the key words here. Until the early 20th Century, Americans had a hard time defining themselves. In Fine Arts, for example, American art didn’t come into it’s own until the opening of “The Armory Show” of 1913. Since then, one can define European art from American pretty easily. In European Art, the artist draws inside the frame. In American Art, the artist also draws outside the frame. In other words, the Americans, instead of following the European traditions (and copying badly, as they did in the 19th Century), broke with tradition to make their own (often openly rebellious) forms. Harold Lloyd’s comedies are like the paintings of those early 20th Century American artists. He defied all the traditional rules.

And the American public loved it.

However, as sound came in during the late 1920s, Harold Lloyd’s fortunes began to decline.

I think more that any other comedian, Harold Lloyd was killed by sound. Chaplin, Keaton and, Langdon, although crippled, continued to move along. As for Laurel & Hardy — they hardly missed a beat. But sound was devastating for Harold for a very simple reason. The vaudevillians had that vaudeville training to fall back on. Harold didn’t have that option. So he did the only thing he could — playing comic acting roles, and in doing so, gradually lost his uniqueness. Only in Movie Crazy is the style regained, but by then it was already too late. After his vast popularity slowly faded, Harold retired in 1938. (Excepting his 1947 “comeback” with Preston Sturges.)

But, until the early 1950s, Harold Lloyd still ranked high in the silent film pecking order – second only to Chaplin. Only with the rise of serious film criticism, and it’s examination of silent comedy did Harold’s reputation really suffer.

James Agee’s “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” a LIFE cover story published in the fall of 1949, is the moment of birth of this study of comedy, presenting Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, and Langdon on a level playing field, suggesting that Charlie was not the only player in the game. There things stood until 1952-3. In a period of 15 months, three important events occurred.

The first was the SIGHT & SOUND survey of the world greatest films. A polling of mostly European critics, had Chaplin not only winning the honors as world’s greatest filmmaker, but crushing the rest of the field! Chaplin received more than double the number of votes of second place Sergei Eisenstein, suggesting that Chaplin, darling of the critics as he was, was probably ranked too highly, and critical comparison to other comedians to place Chaplin in context was needed.

The second event was Chaplin’s leaving the United States for Europe after years of harassment from conservative groups that branded him as “Un-American” and as a “Communist.” (Especially by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI). This understandably caused, and still causes, a great deal of pain and hard feelings among film scholars towards the McCarthyistic era that enveloped American during the 1950s. Clearly, Charles Chaplin had been wronged, and would continue to be wronged for years to come.

This brings us to the third, and for Harold Lloyd, the critical event: his Life Achievement Academy Award for being a “Master Comedian and Good Citizen.”

What a double edged sword that was. On the face of it, everything written on that award was perfectly true. Harold Lloyd was a master comedian. As already said, his comedy style was intrinsically “American.” As for being “Good,” Harold had been for several years, a leader of an organization that made hospitals for crippled children. However, in 1953 “Good Citizen” also had another, far different meaning — as in Lloyd: “Good Citizen;” Chaplin: “Bad Limey Foreigner” — a hideous slap at Chaplin.

One could only imagine the reaction of the critics, all who adored Charlie. How would they feel about Harold Lloyd? I don’t think it would have been very good.

So, with the critics already angry at Harold Lloyd, combined with Harold’s artistic defiance of the very “European” Auteur Theory, extremely little interest was devoted to Lloyd’s comedies in that very critical period in film studies. Unlike Buster Keaton, whose critical reputation would blossom in the 50s and 60s, Harold Lloyd’s would enter an eclipse that it has never completely left.

Lloyd and his descendants have further complicated matters by rarely re-releasing the films, making a popular revision of the critical view unlikely.

Is it any wonder that those studying Harold Lloyd find such a mess? While the public sees him as the guy hanging off that clock, he was so much more.

Artistically in Lloyd’s filmmaking Harold Lloyd, like Chaplin’s “Everyman,” could be anybody. But critically, like Chaplin’s “Everyman,” he can’t seem to find a home.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. What a great photo! Great work on this site!!

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