Up in the Air with Harold Lloyd and His Followers
By dint of perseverance, Harold Lloyd, the modest son of Burchard, Nebraska, became the prince of Hollywood, California, where he lived the Horatio Alger dream. His life and his memorable films alike echo Alger’s theme of young men who apply themselves, rising from rags to riches or from obscurity to celebrity. Like the famous scene in Safety Last! (1923) in which he lifts himself to firm footing after dangling precariously from the hands of a clock atop a skyscraper, Lloyd climbed his way up. The everyman in the horn-rimmed glasses rose from being a no-name bit player to the enviable position of celebrated proprietor, producer, and star at his own studio and the most prolific among the silent comedians of the 1920s.
Lloyd decidedly wasn’t Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, to name the other two members of America’s triumvirate of silent comedy. We watch Chaplin and wonder whether the Tramp will end up happy or sad—or both. We watch Keaton and puzzle over his deadpan: Is he pleased or peeved? We watch Lloyd and don’t mull over his character’s inner life at all. It is enough that he makes us laugh. The “overriding virtue” of Lloyd’s work, wrote Richard Schickel, is that it is “simply and consistently more hilarious than the work of any contemporary other than Keaton.” Amen to that. Understand, though, that there is more to Lloyd than laughter.
Yes, his feature-length comedies—which include Safety Last!, The Freshman (1925), and The Kid Brother (1927)—boast more laughs per minute than anything this side of The Naked Gun. No doubt this contributed to his popularity. But Lloyd movies have another advantage over those of his celebrated comrades: while Chaplin and Keaton are often more preoccupied with overcoming the immediate challenge than with getting the girl, in this regard Lloyd is their opposite. Safety Last! ends not when Harold saves himself from danger but when he kisses his fiancée, Mildred (Mildred Davis, who wed Lloyd in real life in 1923). Likewise, The Freshman wraps up not when our hero wins the big game but when his crush, Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), writes him a love letter. And the romance in The Kid Brother is perhaps the sweetest of all.
“I watched it with a counter in hand and reckon that it averages three good laughs per minute.”
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