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The movie star who dangled from a clock

Silent film star Harold Lloyd's works being revived

Harold Lloyd
The image of Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock is well known, but the comedian himself has become obscure.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- It is one of the most iconic images in film history: A bespectacled man in a boater hat hangs from a skyscraper clock over a busy Los Angeles street. As he dangles, the clock is slowly pulled out of its moorings, and he risks falling to his doom.

The picture brings to mind many questions. How did the man get up there? Will he survive? Will he get the girl? (There is a girl, of course.)

But nowadays, the question would more likely be: Who is the man in the picture?

The man is Harold Lloyd, the legendary silent film comedian, and the scene is from his film "Safety Last," which, even today, is as thrill-packed as they come. In fact, in the 1920s, Lloyd was -- with Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton -- one of the most popular film comedians in Hollywood.

But while Chaplin remains well-known and popular, and critics trumpet the genius of Keaton, Lloyd is the forgotten comedian, the nameless Everyman in glasses.

Harold Lloyd: Stills from his career 
On TV: Harold Lloyd Classics,  Turner Classic Movies, Tuesday, May 28, starting at 8 p.m. EDT

The name, however, is starting to re-emerge. Abrams Books recently issued "Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian," a lush, oversized history of Lloyd's work, rich with photographs; and Turner Classic Movies has scheduled a mini Lloyd film festival for Tuesday, May 28.

The network -- which, like, is a division of AOL Time Warner -- is playing five of Lloyd's films: "Safety Last" (1923), "Girl Shy" (1924), "Hot Water" (1924), "The Kid Brother" (1925) and "Speedy" (1927).

Maintaining control

Lloyd's work was extremely influential. His thrill-packed films were trailblazing examples of breakneck editing and clever composition, and the construction of scenes in films such as "Girl Shy" were mimicked in films ranging from "Ben-Hur" to "The Graduate."

He was also a popular figure in Hollywood. He was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1953, opened the American Film Institute, and devoted a great deal of time to children's hospitals.

But Lloyd may have contributed to his own fade from the public eye, says his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, who co-wrote "Master Comedian" and helps oversee The Harold Lloyd Trust.

The elder Lloyd was a shrewd businessman who controlled almost all of his work, she said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. "He wanted the films to be presented in a special way," she said, "not on television chopped up."

But TV not only cut up his films with commercials; in prefab film programs with names like "Fractured Flickers" they also added cliched ricky-ticky piano music -- contrary to public belief, not the kind of music that originally accompanied the silents. After viewing one of his films that had been mistreated in this fashion, Lloyd "went ballistic," recalls Suzanne.

From then on, his films were rarely seen on television, except for occasional airings on PBS.

Lloyd's granddaughter: "He was truly an elegant gentleman, and very humble" -- and also quite funny.  

Lloyd did reissue his films to theaters, in the compilations "Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy" (1962) and "Harold Lloyd's Funny Side of Life" (1963). "He was able to control the quality," said Suzanne. Because of the lack of television exposure, however, his work was forgotten by many.

'I can't watch it!'

But not all. In the introduction to "Master Comedian," the late Jack Lemmon recalls meeting Lloyd at the comedian's gargantuan estate, Greenacres, upon arriving in Los Angeles to begin his film career. Lloyd gave him some key advice on film acting -- "Less is better" -- advice Lemmon writes he always tried to follow.

Later, Lemmon was asked to play Lloyd in a film biography. The movie was never made, and Lemmon was "rather relieved," he writes. "The onus of trying to recapture someone like Harold Lloyd, who was famous because he was unique, would have been too great for me to have enjoyed the experience."

Lloyd, interestingly, started by playing a Chaplin-esque character in his early shorts, but soon made up the "Glass Character" -- the straw-hatted, horn-rimmed, earnest young man that became his trademark. His granddaughter says the liveliness and sincerity of the character were no gimmicks, however.

"He was truly an elegant gentleman, and very humble," she says. "He'd never go in someplace and say, 'I'm Harold Lloyd.' " He taught her to drive, and when bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones came to L.A., he took her and her friends to the concerts.

On the other hand, he did have his idiosyncrasies. "He hated to lose at anything, especially cards ... and he was very superstitious," she recalls. Watching other people perform thrilling feats was too much. When the Lloyds went to the circus, Harold would get up as the tightrope walker began his act.

" 'I can't watch it!' he'd tell me," Suzanne says, "and he'd walk out."

Lloyd's movie career wound down in the sound era. In the late '40s, he attempted to make a comeback film with Preston Sturges writing and directing and Howard Hughes producing. Filming went poorly, and the film was an unhappy experience for all involved.

"There's a movie in that story," says Suzanne. "Three geniuses having explosions."

So Lloyd settled into retirement, enjoying his estate and his charitable activities, and occasionally showing his films at colleges and lecture series before he died in 1971. He didn't have to go back to acting, and he didn't -- unlike Keaton, who appeared in some Grade B beach party films in the early '60s to make some money.

"He'd get so upset when he'd see Keaton do those movies," Suzanne said. "He'd ask, 'Why is he doing that?' "

Suzanne Lloyd believes the country is ready for a Harold Lloyd renaissance. In particular, she hopes to attract the interest of children. She knows, she said, that they'll respond.

When her teen-age children were younger, she recalled, she brought them to see some of their great-grandfather's films. Her daughter, unfamiliar with Harold Lloyd, watched the action on screen and laughed.

"She said, 'I just love the guy in the glasses,' " Suzanne Lloyd said. " 'He's so funny.' "


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