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Silent Film's Third Genius : Harold Lloyd Put on His Glasses--and Made Film History

March 31, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOS ANGELES — He has gone into film history as the Third Genius--third only to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as a master of silent comedy. Harold Lloyd, of the neat suits, horn-rimmed glasses and the kind of flat straw hat called a boater, actually made more films than Chaplin and Keaton combined. But his work has been harder to see than those of the other great silent comics and in consequence Lloyd is probably most easily recognizable to present filmgoers from a single still photograph: The one that shows him hanging perilously from the bending hand of an officetower clock dizzyingly high above Broadway in the downtown L.A. of 1923.

The picture is from his most famous film, "Safety Last," which he co-wrote with Hal Roach and others, and which is one of the true classics of silent comedy. It features Lloyd's extraordinary athletic ability, which, along with the middle-class Everyman persona he gradually evolved, is his most distinguishing and memorable characteristic.

In "Safety Last" Lloyd is a small-town lad trying to make it in Los Angeles so he can invite his hometown sweetheart to join and marry him. He is an easily harassed salesclerk (pretending, in a fine series of jokes, to be the store manager when his sweetheart shows up unannounced). He persuades the owners that a human fly stunt will provide the publicity the store sorely needs.

When Lloyd's pal, the real human fly, is chased off by a cop, Lloyd has to scale the building himself, in a brilliantly sustained and breathtaking sequence. Pigeons attack him, a mouse crawls up his pant-leg while he teeters perilously on one of the ledges, office workers harass him, a flagpole snaps under his weight, a saving rope proves to be unattached, he is knocked silly by a weather vane. Watching it is hard on vertigo sufferers and stomach-tightening for almost everyone.

How he did it has become a little clearer with time. He worked from scaffolds erected on the building's setbacks. There are intercut shots from ever taller buildings looking down at the ant-like pedestrians far below. A real human fly is seen from afar, actually climbing a building. But even if some trickery was involved, it was terrifically dangerous all the same, with Lloyd working near the edges and risking very nasty falls, from which only an athlete's grace and balance saved him. It is a film no other silent comedian could have made.

(It is the more impressive to know that Lloyd, posing for publicity shots a few years earlier, had picked up what seemed a prop bomb, which exploded and blew two fingers from one hand. An ingenious flesh-colored glove hid the deformity thereafter but Lloyd did his climbing with only a hand and a half.)

Lloyd was born in Burchard, Neb., near Lincoln, on April 20, 1893, and the centenary observances are about to begin. The Film Forum in New York will screen virtually all of his films, including all the two-reelers he made from 1919 onward. In Lincoln, there'll be a gala showing of "Safety Last," with Gaylord Carter from Los Angeles accompanying on the organ and Lloyd's granddaughter, Sue Lloyd Hayes, in attendance along with Rich Correll, who became the curator of Lloyd's films while he was still an undergraduate at USC. Lloyd's birthplace, bought and refurbished by admirers, will be opened as a museum.

In Los Angeles, "Safety Last" will be shown at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra playing a full-score accompaniment composed by Carl Davis, who is flying in from London to conduct.

"Safety Last" was a huge success and led to a series of high-danger films that played for very suspenseful comedy, as when Lloyd scampers around and narrowly avoids falling from girders of a building under construction. In another film, he sits in an office chair atop a girder being lifted into place.

He was sitting in the chair planning to commit suicide. He removes a blindfold and, seeing a carved angel on the building's facade, briefly imagines he has gone to heaven--until he looks down, does a ghastly double-take and realizes he is both alive and imperiled. The suicide motif, treated comically in another film in which he leaps off a bridge into water that is only ankle-deep, is curious, hinting that despair and a keen knowledge of life's disappointments, were as familiar to him as to Chaplin, though made less of.

Lloyd's peripatetic father, nicknamed Foxy, was a portrait photographer who kept the family moving in pursuit of his usually unrealized dreams. Lloyd spent his teen-age years in Durango, Colo. At one point, Foxy Lloyd flipped a coin to see if the family should next head East or West. The West won and Foxy Lloyd became a pool-hall proprietor in San Diego. Harold Lloyd found a place with the John Lane Connor acting troupe.

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