The Glass CharacterS

by Annette D’Agostino Lloyd (August 1996)

“Funnier things happen in life to an ordinary boy than to a Lonesome Luke.” With that statement, Harold Lloyd, essentially, started his film career.

Sure, by the dawn of his breakthrough screen persona, The Glasses Character, Lloyd had already starred in most of his 71 Lonesome Luke comedies, and had a wide following in that role. He was making money, and was thoroughly pleasing his producer, Hal Roach, and his films’ distributor, Pathe. But, Harold Lloyd was extremely unhappy.

From as early on as 1916, Harold Lloyd felt somehow uneasy as Lonesome Luke. Considering the standard of comedy in that day – the more unusual you were, the “funnier” you were – Lloyd should have been quite content. He was doing what he should be doing. He was doing what most comedy characters were doing. Therein lied Lloyd’s problem: why be ab normal? Why not try normalcy? Why follow? Why not lead?

Thus, after a year of trying to convince Roach and Pathe that he had an idea for a better character, Lloyd threatened to quit, and try out his new comedy concept with another producer. Rather than sit on monetary success, Lloyd intended to explore newer, greater, and more pioneering comedy possibilities, even if it meant beginning anew, not as “Lonesome Luke,” but as “Harold Lloyd.” Shrewdly, Roach and Pathe listened to their bright comic – and, in the process, were a part of film history.

In his 1928 autobiography, An American Comedy, Lloyd himself best stated the premise of his new screen character: “The glasses would serve as my trade-mark and at the same time would suggest the character – quiet, normal, boyish, clean, sympathetic, not impossible to romance. I would need no eccentric make-up, ‘mo’ or funny clothes. I would be an average recognizable American youth and let the situations take care of the comedy. The comedy should be better for not depending upon a putty nose or its equivalent and the situations should be better for not being tied to low-comedy coat tails…Exaggeration is the breath of picture comedies, and obviously they cannot be true to life, but they can be recognizably related to life.”

So, what Lloyd was saying was simple, yet very new: make the comedy relatable to the audience member – the average Joe and Jane who are normal, the regular person for whom comedy emerges from the simple things in life. Don’t exaggerate for its own sake, but bring out the funny things that can happen to people – let the audience see themselves in your comedy. In essence, Lloyd was revolutionizing the comedy film genre, by personifying the humor in all of us.

And, by not tying himself to any one get-up or any one “look,” Lloyd was broadening his own comic possibilities. Now, no longer chained to Luke, he could, essentially, “be” anyone he wanted. He had only one characteristic, on screen, that he lacked off screen: horn-rimmed glasses. (These specs were lensless, for two reasons: first, Lloyd’s own vision, at that time, was 20/20; secondly, no lenses produced no glare from the studio lights.) And, much to Lloyd’s personal glee, he looked markedly different without the glasses on, so, out of the studio, he was afforded a brand of anonymity that was envied  by many of his contemporaries… 

The Glass Character debuted in one-reelers in September 1917, and would last be seen on screen some thirty years later. The reason that the character was so enduring was in what Lloyd did with the “Boy” from film to film – Lloyd explained it  best, in a 1966 interview:

“Whereas my character was always the boy with the glasses, and whereas he was always fighting odds, fighting the big fellows, still his attitude of thinking was entirely different from one character role to another – not that we didn’t occasionally repeat the same type…Sometimes he was rich, sometimes he was poor, sometimes he was a sophisticate, sometimes he was a dreamer, and each quality would motivate a lot of gags we’d do.”

It was this variance of personality traits, this change of motivation, that so endeared the Lloyd films to the public imagination. With each release of a Harold Lloyd comedy, a new Glass Character emerged. And, a new faction of Lloyd’s audience would see itself represented.

For Harold Lloyd, this was the ideal, both in terms of popular appeal and in respect to his growth as an actor. Instead of doing the same thing from film to film (as he was doing as Lonesome Luke), Lloyd could stretch his own histrionic possibilities, and, in the process, keep his audiences hopping. And, when one considers that, deep down, Harold Lloyd was in this movie business not really to make a buck, but to explore his beloved craft as an actor — he actually diversified his own learning experiences, while offering to the public a wealth of Glass Characters.

To prove the point, taking just Harold Lloyd’s silent feature-length comedy output from 1921-1928, check out the eclectic array of personas offered:

Idle rich loafer who enters the Navy to impress his beloved’s father…
A SAILOR-MADE MAN (December 25, 1921)

Cowardly youth who discovers the dormant strength always within him…
GRANDMA’S BOY (September 3, 1922)

Poor country doctor who cures not with medicine, but with excitement…
DOCTOR JACK (December 19, 1922)

Struggling store clerk who goes to extremes to make good…
SAFETY LAST (April 1, 1923)

Rich hypochondriac who, in a search for rest, finds his health…
WHY WORRY? (September 16, 1923)

Shy stutterer who finds first love, and a reason not to stutter…
GIRL SHY (April 20, 1924)

Henpecked husband who, via alcohol and “murder,” sheds his in-laws…
HOT WATER (November 2, 1924)

College “boob” who, improbably enough, scores popularity…
THE FRESHMAN (September 20, 1925)

Idle rich loafer who finds love, and “Hope,” in a missionary…
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE (April 5, 1926)

Cowardly youth who becomes a man, while saving his family’s good name…
THE KID BROTHER (January 22, 1927)

Flip city kid who preserves nostalgia, while finding a real cause…
SPEEDY (April 7, 1928)

Harold Lloyd had an ambition for his Glass Character at its conception. He realized that goal, and, in the process, made his audiences, and (for that matter) the future of film comedy, all the richer for his hard work. Lonesome Luke Is Dead! Long Live the Glass Characters!!!

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