The date of April 20th means different things to different people, but to me it is the birth date of the great Harold Lloyd, born on that day in 1893. And Harold Lloyd also means different things to different silent comedy film buffs. But to me there is a personal connection, perhaps moreso than any other of his comic peers.
I think it was 1969. My childhood friend Jeff brought a book to school that he had checked out of the public library and immediately showed it to me. It was called “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy.” We did not know Harold Lloyd, but there were pictures and comments on Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle, and many other comedians with whom we were familiar, so we pored over the book.
The reason we did not know Lloyd was because his films just weren’t on television or anthologized in the various salutes to silent movie comedians. We wondered why, but did not realize that Lloyd owned most of his films and was keeping them out of circulation. I guess he had his reasons. When he died two years later, Jeff called me with the news, and we both regretted knowing him well from the book, but never having seen his movies.
It was probably around 1971 when I received a GAF Dual 8mm home movie projector for Christmas, along with some tiny 50 foot 8mm films, which were essentially 4 minute clips of Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields movies without the sound. In the age of blu-ray and big screen TVs, it seems silly to be excited about something like this, but the idea of having Bud and Lou cavorting on a screen in my basement rec room was incredible. Eventually I discovered the public library that held the Harold Lloyd book also had a slew of 8mm films to check out, so I discovered the magic of Charlie Chaplin’s best work and the Laurel and Hardy silents that I had read about but never saw. Many rainy Saturdays were spent in the darkness of our basement, with several neighborhood kids delighting in films from their grandparents’ time. But the library had no Harold Lloyd.
Most of the movies at the library were from a company called Blackhawk Films. I copied the address from one of the boxes and sent for their catalog. They had Harold Lloyd movies — a few of his early shorts that he did not happen to control, so I sent for a few. I thought movies like “Haunted Spooks,” “His Royal Slyness,” and “Don’t Shove” were funny, but the one I liked best was called High Hopes, which I found used from a company in England called Walton Films. I did not know then that it was a one-reel cutdown of the three reel “Never Weaken” in which Lloyd balances dangerously on a skyscraper. It was the portent to his later feature “Safety Last; “ another film I had only read about.
Fast forward a few years. I think it was around 1980 or so. I was grown up, engaged to be married, and the Time-Life company got ahold of the Harold Lloyd movies, added some music, and put them on TV, including a local PBS station. I saw an abridged version of “Hot Water,” which is considered a weaker Lloyd, but remains one of my favorites. I saw “The Freshman,” and, finally, “Safety Last.” Extraordinary films.
But it was two other factors, occurring a few years later, that made me truly realize why Harold Lloyd is one of the most brilliant comedy filmmakers of all time. First, I reviewed (for Film Quarterly) a bio-bibliography by Annette D’Agostino released in the mid-80s taught me more about the films, and all involved with making them, than I thought possible. It remains one of the most thorough and informative books I have read by anyone about anyone. The other factor in my Lloyd appreciation is the release of a DVD box set containing nearly every feature and short Lloyd made, beautifully restored, with appropriate music scores. Finally I could see complete versions of films I had wondered about since 1969, that I learned so much about from Annette’s book. It was an enormously affecting experience for one who truly appreciates film’s rich history, as I do.
So here we are in the 21st century. Now the Harold Lloyd films are as accessible and available via DVD and TCM screenings as they were unavailable back in 1969. Annette D’Agostino is a friend of mine, and actually married a guy named Lloyd (no he is not related, and yes everyone asks her — including me. I think I even asked him once!). As if the bio-bibliography was not enough, she has written other books about Harold Lloyd’s work, including “The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia” and “Harold Lloyd: Magic In A Pair of Horn Rimmed Glasses.” I have often tried to tell her how much I have learned, and continue to learn, from her work, but I’m afraid it is more than I can accurately convey. In the world of film history, she is one of my handful of heroes.
And, just last year, I found a copy of “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy” in a used book store for only a buck, complete with its dust jacket intact. I emailed old friend Jeff with the news.
Naturally my silent comedy buff brethren are fully aware of Harold Lloyd movies. Some of you are not. If you ever have the opportunity to see such incredible classics as “The Kid Brother,” “For Heaven’s Sake,” “Girl Shy,” “Why Worry,” or the aforementioned “Hot Water,” “The Freshman” or “Safety Last,” you will be entertained by a true master at work — one who can evoke both laughter and tears in the most brilliant manner imaginable. In an era of mindless reality shows, shallow effects-driven blockbusters, and lame sitcoms, I say an investigation of Harold Lloyd’s work should be mandatory for everybody.
Thanks Jeff —
Thanks Annette —
and thanks Harold