Harold Lloyd never intended to be a film star.
His chief ambition, in his youth, was dramatic stage stardom.
His early career, unlike his later years,
was filled with short extra roles, and little satisfaction.
Harold Lloyd, when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 1912, was a student AND teacher in the Connor School of Expression, which mainly partook in stage fare. One late fall afternoon that year, the Edison Company came to call on many such stock companies, looking for “atmosphere,” another term for extras. Many of the students, Harold Lloyd included, answered the call, and were featured in the one-reeler, The Old Monk’s Tale, released in early 1913. This film marked the debut of Lloyd in this new medium.
The roles that followed were hard to get, and not really fulfilling for this new recruit to cinema. As a matter of fact, after the first role, Lloyd returned to the theatre, however briefly. It was after the repertory season closed, and money was tight, that Harold Lloyd took his second film role, and never looked back.
Each of these roles Lloyd found were short, and lacking in any substance. Their main function, in retrospect, served to acquaint Lloyd with the medium of film, and give him a taste of the pioneering role he was to play in its definition.
The path Lloyd took is rather clear and defined, but the release of the films he appeared in is another story. Some films were released months after their filming, some right away. That is why the early phase of Lloyd’s career has been such a “black hole” for so long. Many of these films below no longer exist, thus it is a very tedious process of searching through stills and journals of the day to know definitively what films he was in and not in. Still, years after my book was published on Lloyd, containing what I thought to be the most definitive filmography of his films to date, I continue to refine and improve upon my list of the Lloyd motion pictures. When I construe this filmography to be as complete as I can make it, then it will be published, first in book form, then on this site.
Lonesome Luke was Harold Lloyd’s second major character, after Willie Work and before The Glass Character. Luke was typical of the comedy characters of the day; he wore too-tight clothing, size 12AA shoes, a two-dot mustache and triangular eyebrows. This “knockabout” appearance translated into similar action, and the Luke films are filled with slapstick and frenetic mobility, with little to no emphasis on character development.
Lloyd was unhappy with this character as early as 1916, when he wanted to change his screen persona. Hal Roach, and film distributor, Pathe, refused the young comic, reasoning that Lonesome Luke had a loyal following, got good reviews, and was making money. After a year of dissatisfaction, Lloyd threatened to quit, and start anew with a new producer and the new character. Realizing that it would be silly to lose the gifted comic in this way, Roach conceded, and Lonesome Luke was gradually phased out. The Glass Character was introduced on September 9, 1917, and the release of a one-reel Glasses varied with the release of a two-reel Luke until December 2, 1917, when Lonesome Luke was put to rest with We Never Sleep.
The Glass Character was not only Harold Lloyd’s final character, but his ideal characterization. During the reign of Lonesome Luke, Harold Lloyd had longed to investigate a better persona, one which personified and reflected his audiences. He found his ideal.
Silent film comedy was dominated by funsters who featured grotesque, quirky and unusual characteristics. Lonesome Luke, Harold Lloyd’s character from 1915-17, fell right into this mold — it was for this reason that Lloyd sought to be more innovative, and more unique. He wanted to be a leader, not a follower.
The horn-rimmed spectacles were the only distinguishing characteristic on The Glass Character, and served, chiefly, to allow Harold Lloyd to step outside of himself, yet still be a normal-looking young man. Primarily known as “The Boy,” Lloyd wore regular suits in role. In this first, one-reel phase of the character, The Boy wore a flowing tie, and three-piece tweed suits. Hats ranged with the character, sometimes calling for a top hat, sometimes a bowler, other times a cap. The straw hat that became his trademark head gear was periodically used in the one-reelers.
Makeup, which tended to individualize most comedians, was very normal in The Boy — Lloyd wore, for the sake of the camera and the lighting, eyeliner, eyebrow pencil, and lip fill. As the years pass, the amount of facial makeup decreases.
Lloyd felt that The Glass Character was a tremendous step up: he often said, “Funnier things happen in life to a normal kid than happen to a Lonesome Luke.” His actions, his predicaments, his trials and his successes could, now, be relatable to his audiences, who saw The Boy as one of them. Because he was not at all out of the ordinary, he could be believable.
The choice of glasses provided a “reversity of character” that appealed to Harold. Persons with glasses, in those days, were hopelessly pegged as studious, milquetoast and calm. Lloyd’s trademark enthusiasm and active mobility were in direct contradiction with the stereotype — this, Lloyd reasoned, gave him greater range in acting possibilities.
In the one-reel Glass Character days, Harold Lloyd not only became, in his words, “a human being,” but grew steadily in popularity. His box office receipts were consistently high, and Pathe distributors showed their appreciation for Harold’s hard work in early 1919.
On April 12, 1919, Hal Roach and Pathe signed a contract, calling for nine two-reel comedies, at an approximate rate of one every two months. Previous to this, the one-reelers were being ground out at a rate of one per week. Now, with this longer length, the opportunity for growth increased for Harold Lloyd, as he forged ahead with cinematic innovations.
Not only were longer films budgeted at a higher price, but the story possibilities grew alongside. Note that, until the sound era dawned, Harold Lloyd never used a formal script. Lloyd and his crew of “gag men” would sit around, think up ideas, and then go out and test them. They would refine and refine, until pleased, and then think up the next idea. Creativity was always a priority.
Another paramount priority was the opinion of the public. Harold Lloyd knew that, and for this reason, he began the practice of the “preview” — taking a film, in rough cut, to a theatre of unsuspecting patrons (who were there to see the advertised bill). Before the feature, the theatre manager would come out and announce that the next offering would be a Lloyd film, not yet released, and that their opinions would be greatly appreciated. Harold grew to depend on this, and acted upon the consensus of the audience. One of the two-reelers below, I Do, was previewed at three reels; when the audience voiced a displeasure with the first reel, Lloyd cut it out, re-previewed it and, when it pleased the next audience, he kept the film at the shorter length. As Lloyd said, “The public is the doctor.”
The newly contracted films saw changes in the Roach ensemble of players. Bebe Daniels was the first to leave, after Captain Kidd’s Kids, to star in dramatic pictures for Paramount and Cecil B. DeMille. Harry Pollard was the next to leave, after His Royal Slyness, to star in his own series of short comedies for Hal Roach. Harold Lloyd’s new leading lady, Lloyd reasoned, had to bear little resemblance to Daniels’ brunette, dark-eyed beauty. Enter blonde and blue-eyed Mildred Davis, who had been in comedy and dramatic features, and who debuted for Lloyd in From Hand to Mouth.
From 1919-1921, Harold Lloyd’s popularity with the two and three reel Glass Character shorts grew steadily. The notion of comedy, perhaps, as the stronger box office draw was gaining credence: for this reason, as well as by accident, Harold Lloyd found himself in the feature picture business.
Harold Lloyd’s entry into the feature-length comedy (which meant, at that time, a length of four or more reels) was both purposeful and accidental at the same time. With the April 12, 1919 contract, nine Lloyd two-reelers were released. After this, a new contract was signed with Associated Exhibitors, on June 4, 1920, calling for seven more films of three-reel length. Pathe would still release the films, and Rolin would still produce them, but Associated would handle such details as advertising, and advancing of funds for production.
The first two films for this 1920 contract were three-reelers (Now or Never and Among Those Present), and the third was a two-reeler (I Do). The fourth was, again, a three-reeler (Never Weaken), which precipitated what happened with the next film, A Sailor-Made Man.
When originally previewed at four reels (because Lloyd and Hal Roach felt that all the raw footage was too good to discard), it was an immediate hit. The film, released at four reels, made up for I Do, which was a reel short. So, accidentally, Lloyd was in the feature film business — but, his original intention was to return to shorts.
The next film, Grandma’s Boy, was planned for two reels, again to compensate for the longer length of the previous film (in a noble effort to be honest, financially, with Associated). As happened before, when previewed, the five reels were too good to resist for, with this film, Lloyd investigated characterization as never before. The longer length was a perfect way to fully develop the character of Sonny. Lloyd reasoned, at this point, that features were a good long-range plan, for his desire was to focus on character studies in his comedies, steering clear of the idea of gag for purely gag’s sake. So, now, instead of planning more short subjects, every film from then on was planned for length of five reels or better.
Lloyd and Roach terminated business relations, in a most friendly manner, after Why Worry? Roach was becoming increasingly preoccupied with his other charges, including Our Gang, and Lloyd desired to control his own destiny, both creatively and financially. Harold Lloyd Corporation, with offices at 1040 Las Palmas Avenue, Hollywood, was born, and Lloyd debuted as his own producer with Girl Shy.
Lloyd succumbed to the sound novelty in 1929: his offering that year, Welcome Danger, was originally completed as a silent, and was transformed through dubbing and re-filming of certain sequences, at a cost to Lloyd of almost one million dollars. It was his biggest grossing film, but one of his least profitable films. Throughout the sound era, Lloyd’s popularity decreased, as Depression audiences found little comfort in the unflagging optimism of the Glass Character. Should Lloyd have changed his character to meet the changing times? A question that cannot be truly answered, but can be speculated upon…
Harold Lloyd retired from active filmmaking in 1947, but returned fifteen years later to release the first of his two compilation films, which incorporated clips of his shorts and features, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, followed in 1966 by Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.