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High time for a tribute

Harold Lloyd, The Other Comic Genius, Emerges From Silence.

November 13, 2005|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

FROM a 21st century perspective, Harold Lloyd has the bittersweet position of always being included in a list of the top funnymen from the silent-film era, but never being the first choice. One can argue whether Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton deserves to be the Beatles, but Harold Lloyd is invariably the Dave Clark Five -- the lesser acolyte, the respectable also-ran.

There are reasons for that, some fair, some not, but a key cause in recent years is Lloyd's absence from the DVD shelf. That changes in a dramatic fashion with the Nov. 15 release of a deep survey of his career, "The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection," a three-volume series that is sold both individually and packaged together with extras to form a seven-disc gift set.

The DVDs should add dimension to the cultural memory of Lloyd. Today he may be best remembered by a wide audience through a series of freeze-frame scenes culled from his movies. It's a highlight reel of melodramatic predicaments; the most iconic image is, of course, the one of Lloyd, wide-eyed in horn rims, clinging in loopy desperation to the hands of an office building's clock.

That scene from "Safety Last!" (1923) had him in his most famous screen persona, the clean-cut, enthusiastic "ordinary boy," as Lloyd himself described his "glasses character." He was a Walter Mitty, or one of the roles that would lace the work of Jack Lemmon in later years. When the ridiculous struck, he was the straight man who dangled in danger's way while the audience howled.

Lloyd's calling card was impeccable comic timing and a sense of farce that sought its setup in the life of the ordinary. Chaplin the Tramp was an outsider, and Keaton seemed to be otherworldly at times, but Lloyd was a bespectacled and spunky Average Joe; in fact, he wore glasses the way Clark Kent did, to hide his handsome face enough to make him more apt to blend into the crowd.

There was nothing ordinary about the machinations of his gags. Take that scene in which he is clutching the clock for dear life; before he got into that scary spot, his climb on the ledges of a downtown L.A. building had been complicated by clawing pigeons, a gunman, a vicious dog, a badminton net (!) and several other unexpected brands of menace. In the end, he reaches the roof and cheerily gets the girl ... while the audience collapses in fatigue.

Despite that sort of compelling craft, Lloyd's career was always viewed as the bronze medal winner. Note the title of the 1989 documentary of his career -- "The Third Genius." The reason was the other two guys.

Chaplin is a titan as a Hollywood icon, and Keaton was ahead of his time as a sublime master of absurdity, yet Lloyd was the one who remained on the Hollywood scene with the most longevity and the least personal volatility. For more than three decades, Lloyd was a star of some measure. Long after Chaplin was into exile, there was Lloyd, hosting radio shows into the 1950s.


LLOYD hadn't started with the famous and feckless character of "Safety First!" In the 1910s, guided by director Hal Roach, he was immersed in a character called Lonesome Luke, an obvious lift from Chaplin's immigrant-class hobo hero. By 1918, though, he was in the glasses and separating himself from the Chaplin template. Within a few years, the character had proven bankable enough to jump into feature films in fare such as "Grandma's Boy" (1922) and "Why Worry?" (1923).

He began producing his own films in 1924 and established himself as a familiar face in Hollywood's top circles. The irrepressible character he created seemed in perfect pace with the rhythms of 1920s life; the Great Depression, however, soon found him out of step with the trying times. His star wattage nationally dimmed, but he remained a fixture in Hollywood circles.

If the audience felt their stomachs lurch when Lloyd danced on the edge of danger and comedy, there was good reason for the fear. The special effects of the day were limited, so Lloyd put himself at risk with the pratfalls and dizzying stunts. He once suffered a serious injury when a small explosive charge badly mangled his right hand. He had been holding it for a gag about a man oblivious to the fact that he was lighting a cigarette with a fuse.

For a man who spent so much screen time in precarious spots (treading a suspended girder, behind the wheel of a careening car, scrambling over ledges), the star was himself a model of steadiness in his career.

The new DVDs draw together the signature work in his resume with 15 feature films, including "Safety Last!" and 13 shorts, but the entire Lloyd filmography swells past 200 credits.

The extras include various tribute segments to Lloyd (Lemmon, John Landis, Debbie Reynolds and Steve Allen are among those singing his praises), a career appraisal by Leonard Maltin, Lloyd's acceptance speech at the Academy Awards and some rarely seen home movies.

On Lloyd's long list of work, there is not a single director's credit. His control over his image on screen was strong, of course, but the resume deficiency is another reason his acclaim has been a tamped-down cause among auteur-centric appraisers of Hollywood legacy.

There was also his steadiness and sustained presence -- Chaplin and Keaton had elements of the tragic as the credits rolled early on their screen careers. Lloyd not only stuck around, he became the top leader of the Shriners philanthropic organization for crippled children, rising to its highest elected national office in the late 1940s. Good work, obviously, but not the role that stirs the imaginations of film students.

There was a dismissive joke in Hollywood that Chaplin and Keaton would not be seen wearing a fez at a Shriners meeting -- it was too pedestrian. Maybe so. But then, if Lloyd hadn't been one of us, he wouldn't have been one of a kind.

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