Lloyd v. Keaton

by David B. Pearson

Many thanks to David Pearson for contributing this stimulating piece for cyber-posterity. It is my pleasure to continue to share his insightful rantings!!!

The Great Rivalry, Indeed…

Keaton and Lloyd seemed to go out of their way to improve on each other’s material, which seems logical considering they were the two comedy stars making feature films throughout the ’20s.
Examples of Keaton/Lloyd duplication proliferate…

In From Hand to Mouth (1919), Harold is chased by hordes of policemen, much like the armies that chase Buster in Convict 13 (1920), Cops (1922), Daydreams (1922), and Seven Chances (1925).In Mouth and Sherlock Jr., they both rescue the heroine from a gang of criminals.

Speaking of armies, Why Worry? (1923) casts Harold fighting off the rebel Paradisian army. In The Navigator (1924), Buster defends his ship against bands of cannibals.

In High and Dizzy (1920) and The Goat (1921), they both throw horse shoes over their shoulders for good luck, only to hit respective law enforcement officers in the face.

In The Three Ages, Buster finds that the girl he loves is about to marry a bigamist, so goes to the wedding and steals the bride. Lloyd’s Girl Shy, made a few months later, has an identical climatic plot.

In Haunted Spooks (1920), Lloyd tries to kill himself by standing in a trolley’s path, only to see it pass at the last moment onto a nearby track. In Hard Luck (1921), the same thing happens to Keaton. Footnote: Later in Hard Luck, Keaton attempts suicide by drinking alcohol he thinks is poison, getting himself drunk. A Langdon gag parallels this in The Chaser (1927), where Harry’s drinking “poison” castor oil leaves him dying to get to a bathroom.

In the opening shot of Cops, Keaton is behind bars, appearing to be in prison. But the reverse angle reveals that bars are to his girl’s estate, thereby locking him out, not in. Harold expands upon this idea in Safety Last.

In order to marry the girl in Day Dreams (1922), Keaton must prove himself a success in business. While failing miserably, Buster writes home of his success. In Safety Last, Lloyd does the same with his girl.

In Daydreams, Buster dresses as a mannequin to avoid the police. In Safety Last, Harold dresses as a mannequin to avoid the store manager.

In Girl Shy, Harold hitches a ride to a car he thinks is going to town. Instead, the owner parks the car in a garage, which Harold to creep away. Racing to a fire in The Cameraman (1928), Keaton jumps on a passing fire engine that’s returning to the station.

Back in Girl Shy, the brakes on a Model-T Harold Lloyd is cranking slip, and the car goes crashing into a gully, totally destroyed. Harold looks at the crank still in his hands, shrugs, and tosses it away. A similar thing happens to Keaton while racing along in The General. Early in the picture, Buster’s hand car derails and crashes into a gully, totally wrecked. Buster gets up, looks at the ruined car, then at the handcart handle still in his hands, shrugs, and tosses it away. Lloyd does another variant of this gag in For Heaven’s Sake (1926). There, while cranking his car, Harold sees it get smashed by a passing train, much like Keaton’s house is leveled in One Week (1920), and Buster’s car in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1932).

In The Three Ages, Buster scores the winning touchdown in a comic football game. Lloyd does the same in The Freshman (1925). Footnote: It appears from production stills taken during the shooting of College that Keaton had planned a second football sequence, but something possibly negative audience reactions to his following Lloyd too closely caused Keaton to replace this footage with an alternate sequence with Buster failing at being a Black waiter. Footnote: Harry Langdon does it in Feet of Mud (1924).

In The Freshman and in College (1927), Harold and Buster go to universities (in Harold’s case, Tate College, and in Buster’s case Clayton College, as in Harold Clayton Lloyd).

In College and in Speedy (1928), they both play soda-jerks.

In Speedy, Harold visits Yankee Stadium in New York City. Shortly after, Buster visits the stadium in The Cameraman (1928).

In The Cameraman, Buster photographs a Tong War. Harold battles the Tong in Welcome Danger (1929).

Finally, Buster does his talking “screen test” to break into movies in Free and Easy (1930). Harold does the same in Movie Crazy (1932).

Since I wrote this, Oh Doctor! came out, and shows a sequence which is a clear influence on Harold’s Never Weaken (1921). Doctor Roscoe is looking for patients. He runs over people who are watching a soap salesman, then gives them his card; In Never Weaken, Harold is looking for patients. He pours soap on the ground, causing lots of falls. He hands his his victims his card. This suggests that the tit-for-tatting dates back into the Arbuckle days.

The Children of Tol’able David
One of the more interesting aspects of the Lloyd/Keaton rivalry is the influence of the drama Tol’able David (1921) on the genre. Set in hills of West Virginia/Kentucky, the plot of Tol’able David concerns a farm boy (Richard Barthelmess) leads an idyllic life until three criminals, The Hatburns, invade the neighbors’ house which contains the boys’ love interest. The Hatburns soon kill the boy’s dog, cripple his brother, and cause his father’s death. Because he must now support his mother, sister-in-law, and infant niece, the boy refrains from fighting the Hatburns, causing people in the village to brand him a coward. Eventually the boy is reluctantly given his brother’s old job as driver of the village’s mail hack. As the boy passes the Hatburns on the roadside, they steal the mail. The boy retraces his steps, discovers the Hatburns with the mail, and, after a protracted battle, kills all three of them. Badly wounded in the fight, the boy heroically drags the mail into the hack, and delivers it. Footnote: Tol’able David‘s opening comic sequence in which Barthelmess must chase his dog, who has stolen his pants, appears to have been influenced by Keaton’s The Scarecrow. In that film, Buster is chased by a “mad” dog, during which, he loses his pants. By the way, the “mad” dog is Luke, Roscoe Arbuckle’s plucky canine. At the end of the chase, Buster and Luke shake hands.

This unlikely source, (Tol’able David) is a direct influence on several of Lloyd’s comedies, and as we’ll see, indirectly on Keaton’s.

In 1922, the year following Tol’able David, Lloyd made his first real feature, Grandma’s Boy. Set in rural South, Harold plays a coward, who, after given an amulet that supposedly gave his grandfather the bravery to become a Civil War hero, captures a tramp/criminal after a protracted battle. As Harold Lloyd’s financial success with Grandma’s Boy forced Keaton (and Chaplin too) into producing feature films, Buster followed Lloyd’s lead with his second feature, Our Hospitality. Set in a mountainous area of 1830 Kentucky/Virginia, (which in 1863, would become West Virginia,) Keaton satirizes the Hatfield/McCoy feud, (and the “Hatburn clan”) with a Canfield/McKay feud.

Lloyd borrowed from Tol’able David even more extensively when making The Kid Brother (1927), in which plot elements include; the West Virginia setting, “the girl” being indirectly connected to the crooks (complete with implications of possible rape), the hero being treated as a boy in a family of men, the heroically protracted battle to defeat the murderous villain, and the climatic race against time in a hack, (although, instead of delivering the mail, Harold delivers the crook). To his credit, Lloyd does pay homage to the Tol’able David by casting Ralph Yearsley as his lifelong rival.

In another “tit-for-tat” move, Keaton followed up Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, by setting Steamboat Bill Jr. in Mississippi, and casting Torrance against type as his father.

It seems that the only Keaton/Lloyd Southern-based comedy not influenced by Tol’able David is The General (1926). Keaton’s favorite is, however, certainly influenced by the Civil War flashback in Grandma’s Boy. In both, they play cowardly Confederates (or in Buster’s case, a pseudo-Confederate and pseudo-coward) who cross into Federal lines, and secretly attend a meeting of Union officers, thereby learning the enemy’s plans.

To a lesser degree, two other Lloyd features, Girl Shy (1924), and The Freshman (1925), also borrow plot elements from Tol’able David. In Tol’able the boy is wistfully watching a dance from an outside window, showing his isolation from his society. Lloyd repeats this sequence in a early scene in Girl Shy, where he wistfully watches a dance from across the street. Later in Tol’able, the boy is allowed to drive the hack only because grocer has no time to find anyone else. In The Freshman, Harold is allowed to play in the game only because the football coach has no time to find anyone else.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Melissa says:

    This is the only place, online or in books, that I have seen this addressed in detail. In Buster’s autobio My Wonderful World of Slapstick, he does say that they were happy to offer gags to other comedians if they thought it would work better for the other guy. I believe he was also quoted as saying they didn’t “steal” from each other. So presumably if they wanted to do something another comedian had done, they would ask first??

    Most of the duplications I’ve noticed, Harold did first. I fell for Buster first, so watched all of his films. Then I started watching Harold. And began seeing some mighty familiar-looking gags… Even multiple gags from one film. You mention Haunted Spooks and Hard Luck. In Haunted Spooks, Harold also runs in front of a car with his back to it (the driver keeps swerving to avoid hitting him). Buster simplifies it in Hard Luck by standing in front of a pair of headlights on a dark road that turn out to be a pair of motorcycles that pass by him on each side.

    There’s a pre-1920 HL short co-starring Bebe Daniels that I don’t know the name of, where she’s a clerk in a shop and Harold is pursuing her, so he takes the Help Wanted sign that the shop owner has just set in the window and carries it into the store, where he is hired as, yes, the new soda jerk. This is repeated by Buster in College. The shop proprietor sets the Help Wanted sign in the window and Buster immediately takes it and goes in and is hired as the new soda jerk. These films were separated by nearly a decade, but Buster had obviously seen and remembered Harold’s short.

    As much as I adore Buster, and he is rightfully acknowledged as a brilliant cinema pioneer, it’s obvious that he didn’t pull his ideas just from his own creative mind, or his team. Harold Lloyd deserves his place in the pantheon of The Big Three. I’m glad they were friends. Their sharing, copying, or “rivalry” enriched their films.

  2. Kaitlyn says:

    I sadly just found out about Mr. Lloyd last month. But I must say that I love him so dearly. I’ve read Mrs. Lloyd’s book on Harold, and I think it’s magnificent. This man is obviously the best comedian this world has ever been faced with. I do also love Chaplin and Keaton dearly. Oh heck… What can you say? Those glasses make me wanna melt!

  3. Syn Ripley says:

    I’ve just discovered this website and I have’t read any book on or by HL. I have read an autobiography by Buster in which he states that HL, Charlie, and him were great friends. They would attend the Sunday BBQ’s that Buster gave and exchange gags for each other to try. He also said that he should have listened when HL told him not to go to MGM. But when MGM let him go and he was living in a motor home with no place to park , HL let him put it at Greenacres. Somehow I don’t see their friendship in terms of rivalry. I know the gags are similar, but I burst out laughing not caring who might have done it first. They each put their own mark on it. I can’t see numbering their genius status either. Maybe somebody decided to put them in alphabetical order. Anyway, together they are Drs. Lloyd, Keaton, and Chaplin. They are here to keep my mind healthy and happy. And for that I am truly grateful. If you ever feel like you’re losing your sixth sense (humor), they’ve got what you need.

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