The Down-to-Earth Comic Genius of Harold Lloyd

When the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth himself, gets in the back of his cab and asks for a ride to Yankee Stadium, star-struck “Speedy” can hardly believe his good luck—and on his first day on the job, too.


In reality, much like his celebrated passenger, the man in the front of the cab was at the top of his game and the peak of his career and fame. His films, especially his trademark brand of “thrill comedies,” had made Harold Lloyd a household name, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton: the three superstars of silent comedy.


Lloyd’s films collectively outgrossed Chaplin’s and Keaton’s in the 1920s, with his most popular film, The Freshman (1925), second only to Chaplin’s film that same year, The Gold Rush, among the highest-grossing silent comedies of all time; it also inspired a flurry of college-themed comedies, including Keaton’s College (1927). Speedy (1928), the film with the Babe Ruth cameo, was nominated for an Academy Award.


Due to the vagaries of history, Lloyd is less well-known today than Chaplin or Keaton, but his legacy lives on. If you’ve seen Back to the Future (1985), Bringing Up Baby (1938), any of Jackie Chan’s movies, or any incarnation of Superman or Harry Potter, then you’ve experienced Lloyd’s influence.


Lloyd’s bespectacled, unimposing “Glasses Character” inspired the creation of Superman’s mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent; much further down the cultural stream, Harry Potter inherited the spectacles. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant not only borrowed the glasses, but based his entire performance on Lloyd. (Lloyd’s glasses, like Clark Kent’s, were a kind of disguise, but in reverse; he once exulted, “I can stroll unrecognized down any street in the land at any time without the glasses, a boon granted no other picture actor, and one which some of them would pay well for.”)


Far and away Lloyd’s greatest single moment—an iconic image that has come to epitomize the whole world of silent comedy, recognized by nearly everyone whether or not they’ve ever heard of Lloyd—is the moment in Safety Last! (1923) when Lloyd dangles from the hands of a giant clock face on the exterior of a building at least 10 stories above the streets of Los Angeles.


This immortal stunt has been referenced and spoofed many times, most famously in the climax of Back to the Future, with Doc Brown on the clock tower hanging from the hands of the clock. The homage is foreshadowed in the film’s celebrated opening shot, with all those ticking clocks in Doc Brown’s workshop—one of which includes a tiny Harold Lloyd figure dangling from one of its hands.


The influence of the clock scene can also be seen in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), the Coens’ The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Jackie Chan, whose style of physical comedy owes a great deal to Lloyd, referenced the clock scene twice—in Project A (1983) and Shanghai Knights (2003).


Linking all of Lloyd’s best work is the Glasses Character. After struggling for years with the enormous influence of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Lloyd hit on the idea of a persona defined not by his quirks or eccentricities, but precisely by his ordinariness. The Tramp creates absurdity just by being the Tramp; the Glasses Character—also called the Boy, and usually named Harold—is a likable, optimistic everyman who somehow finds himself in absurd situations through small missteps and lapses in judgment, often involving pretensions of being something he isn’t.


In Safety Last! he lands a lowly job at a department store, but he leads his girlfriend (Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s real-life wife) to believe he’s the manager of the store. In Girl Shy (1924) he writes a Don Juan’s how-to book on wooing various types of women despite being barely able to speak to girls in real life (his ridiculous manuscript is actually accepted for publication—as a satire). In The Freshman his efforts to be a popular BMOC make him a laughingstock. (Harold also tries out the nickname “Speedy” in The Freshman—his real nickname, given by his father.)


What always redeems Lloyd’s hero is that he never gives up and ultimately comes through in a crisis. In my favorite Lloyd film, The Kid Brother (1927), Lloyd plays Harold Hickory, the runt of a family of rugged mountain men whose paterfamilias is the sheriff of the eponymous town of Hickoryville. Harold’s pretensions of filling his father’s shoes lead to increasingly serious trouble until Harold finally admits his pretense to the girl (regular leading lady Jobyna Ralston) who gives him the encouragement he needs to rise to the occasion. In the thrilling climax, Harold saves the day and wins his father’s approbation (“Son, you’re a real Hickory”).


The Kid Brother is my favorite Lloyd film because it’s the ideal blend not only of all the tones and elements of Lloyd’s films—comic situations and gags, touching sentiment, clever conceits and brilliant stunts, action and high excitement—but of essentially the whole world of silent comedy. I couldn’t count how many times I have shown The Kid Brother to people who had never seen a silent film before; it never fails to make converts.


Lloyd’s films, like many silent comedies, make excellent family viewing. I’ve watched any number of Lloyd’s films with my children at various ages over the years, along with the films of Chaplin, Keaton, and others, and everyone enjoys them. Unlike older viewers, children are, as C.S. Lewis once noted, “so terribly catholic”—so uncritically open to everything, from trash to masterpieces. Watching silents with children is like exposing them to another culture; it broadens their horizons, expands their imagination, and enriches their inner world.


The plots are generally simple enough for children to follow with minimal explanation, and the silent format permits children to ask questions and adults to clarify and explain with little pausing and rewinding. We discuss them freely as they roll, providing our own impromptu commentary track. Over the years the kids recall and repeat comments from earlier viewings, and our shared familial experience of the films deepens over time.


Compared to the work of Chaplin and Keaton, what makes Lloyd’s films special to me is Lloyd himself: his cheerful personality, his insecurities and anxieties, his boyish enthusiasm. He has an endearing quality reminiscent of a young Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks (or Jackie Chan).


Keaton is just as dogged and relentless in pursuing his goals, but there’s a hangdog fatalism about Keaton’s characters. As for the Tramp, however his stories turn out, a sense of a tragic universe pervades his work. I empathize with Chaplin and Keaton, but I like Lloyd. Time spent with his films is like time spent with a friend.


Harold Lloyd’s feature films, and a selection of his shorts, are available in a six-disc 2005 DVD set, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection. Along with SpeedySafety Last! and The Freshman are available via Criterion Collection, which should certainly do The Kid Brother next.

Film & Television
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