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.
Harold Lloyd’s first comedy character was Willie Work, whose appearance was directly patterned after Charles Chaplin’s Tramp. With this character, at least two films were released, though many more were made. The next character, Lonesome Luke, varied the Tramp theme somewhat, by employing tight clothes, two-dot mustache, and wide smile. Lloyd was never happy with this persona (“Wide, heavy slapstick on the simplest theme … eight hundred feet of so-called plot …I loathed the get-up and the character…”), though seventy-one films were released to very good reviews and popular acclaim.A newer, better, and more unique character was in Lloyd’s mind, as early as 1916, but it was a year later, after threatening to quit, that Harold was allowed to try out the new persona, dubbed The Glass Character. This role, which put a normal-looking boy onto the screen, with the single defining characteristic being a pair of lenseless horn-rimmed glasses, came to change the standard definition of comedy at the time. No more did a character have to be quirky, grotesque, or out-of-the-ordinary in order to be funny: Lloyd proved that.
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.
Then came August 24, 1919. This day found Harold posing for publicity stills at Witzel Photographers, Los Angeles. One shot called for Lloyd to light a cigarette from a prop bomb, striking a sassy, devil-may-care pose. The prop, though, so resembled a real bomb that an actual real bomb got mistakenly mixed in with the fakes – the real bomb was handed to Lloyd. He lit the already-lit cigarette onto the wick, but found that the excessive smoke prohibited a good picture. As he signaled for a new wick, the bomb exploded. The force of the blast temporarily blinded Lloyd, and severed the thumb and forefinger from his right hand, and kept him out of the studio for almost five months. Thanks to the input of former glove salesman Sam Goldwyn, Lloyd’s impairment was covered within a prosthetic glove. At no time did Lloyd ever discuss the loss of the fingers – he would acknowledge the accident, but not the disability. Lloyd did not want his audiences to come to see his films out of pity or curiosity. He wanted people, simply, to laugh with him.And that they did … popularity grew with each release, and so did his coverage in the magazines. Author Ethel Sands interviewed Lloyd in 1922, and had this to report: “Really, I think he is the favorite comedian with the girl fans, because he never seems like a clown … he is different … instead of that sort of self-assured, rather ‘nervy’ manner he affects on screen, he has a shy modest way about him that is the biggest surprise of all.”The films kept on coming. Two-reelers grew to three-reelers, then to feature length with A Sailor-Made Man in 1921. Eleven silent features were released between 1921 and 1928. Seven sound features followed from 1929 through 1947. All the films took The Glass Character to new heights, exploring a wide array of situations and lifestyles, but all featuring the optimistic go-getter whose enthusiasm got him out of scrape after scrape. Obstacles were laughed at, while the audiences rolled in the aisles. Lloyd once claimed that the toughest part of a screen comic’s life was “fresh invention, to think up gags,” noting that he took in the “comedies every season to find out what gags to avoid.” The sound age saw a decline in Lloyd’s popularity, mainly because Depression-era audiences lost their association with the optimism of his character.
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.