Part of the Series The Silent Artists
Part of the reason why the films of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton endure is that their sensibilities still reflect the tastes of today’s audiences. The Great Stone Face’s emotional passivity and over-the-top physicality predicted the modern action film (though the Steamboat Bill Jr. house and the Our Hospitality waterfall weren’t no green screen). Chaplin’s introspective approach and interchanging of comedy and tragedy inspired highbrow comic filmmakers from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach. In addition, Chaplin and Keaton’s personas were one-of-a-kind creations that, in the words of Roger Ebert, “were from another plane of existence.” They created their own universes — almost to the point of solipsism, the unkind might say.
Harold Lloyd took a different path, albeit one that’s been easier to dismiss if not overlook (in the Ebert essay just cited, he acknowledged never having seen a Lloyd film until 2005). Lloyd was obviously a product of his era; his films burst with the sort of Roaring Twenties optimism now thought hopelessly naive. But that critique is incomplete: Lloyd was also a perceptive critic of American life, bringing more nuance to his character than many assume. Ironically, the specific way he was a product of his age makes him a more relevant reflection of our own time than his two great rivals. As Dave Kehr put it: “The other great silent comics defined their own worlds; Lloyd lives dangerously in ours.”
“Lloyd was an ordinary man, like the rest of us,” Walter Kerr wrote in The Silent Clowns. Critic Steve Greydanus compared him to Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks (and calls The Kid Brother an all-time favorite). Lloyd could apply his character, with his countervailing traits of go-go optimism and awkwardness, into several different social classes: the poor-boy dreamer (Girl Shy, Speedy), the eager-beaver middle-class klutz (The Freshman, Grandma’s Boy) the callow self-absorbed aristocrat (Why Worry?, For Heaven’s Sake). He even made at least one film where he played multiple sides of the Glasses character and milked the tension between them (Among Those Present). His “Glasses Character” is not exactly classless, but so easily adaptable among classes that he embodies an ideal of social mobility that made him the quintessentially American comedian of the 20s.
Compared to the Tramp and the Stoneface, Lloyd’s “Glasses Character” was more likable and realistic as a social ego-ideal, giving his character’s travails and social anxieties more bite. Those anxieties are hardly less relevant now than in the 20s, and Lloyd’s theme of upwardly-mobile social humiliation of the Everyman remains a staple of American comedy through prestige films as varied as Forrest Gump and The Social Network (jittery Eduardo Saverin is more of a Lloyd type next to Mark Zuckerberg’s Keaton pokerface) and lowbrow films as varied as Bridesmaids and American Pie.
Lloyd’s adeptness as critical chronicler of the 20s can be seen most clearly in his masterpiece The Freshman. Harold’s earnest efforts to become the Big Man on Campus through throwing parties are exploited as a cruel joke by the real BMOCs. At one party the ruse literally comes apart when his tuxedo falls into pieces while he’s wearing it. Harold hilariously tries to save face by having a tailor behind a curtain repair it, but the key to this sequence is something so archetypal it verges on the uncanny. Having one’s clothes come apart is as close as a 1920s movie could come to the defining metaphor for social humiliation: suddenly finding oneself naked in a public place.
So much of Lloyd’s comic art springs from the awkwardness and terror of social mobility. One reason the iconic image of Harold hanging from a clock in Safety Last has become Lloyd’s calling card is because so much archetypal and dream meaning is packed in it: the skyscraper as an image of material progress combined with dangling from a height and fear of falling. The scene occurs because Harold has pretended to be better off than he is to impress his girl, but she now wants to marry and, through plot complications, his efforts to prove his worthiness force him into this stunt. Social climbing begets a literal act of climbing, with the ever-present fear of falling, falling, falling…
The automobile, the quintessential technological status symbol in the 1920s, is often used in the same way Lloyd used the tuxedo in The Freshman. In Hot Water, Harold tries to impress his new in-laws by showing off his new car. In an elaborate sequence of gags, the car falls apart like his tuxedo, progressively humiliating him before the toughest audience a man faces in his life: his parents-in-law. More than half of Lloyd’s features showcase the automobile, symbolizing radical progress in a world still populated with horse-drawn fire engines (Hot Water) and even horse-drawn New York City mass transit (Speedy). As Richard Schickel puts it, “He was not writing on film an early version of Future Shock. But it is there to see if one has the eyes to see it.” In Number Please, he tries to get a leg up in a battle over a girl by using this newfangled communication tool, the telephone.
Lloyd’s obsession with 1920s progress and obsolescence is by no means obsolete. In the early 21st century, anxieties over both social mobility and technological change have spread globally: think of the films of one of today’s important directors, China’s Jia Zhangke, where migrant workers toil for a better life while barely keeping pace with their nation’s progress. If Lloyd were alive today, he’d film a world of TV rabbit ears alongside Netflix streaming, of dial-up alongside the Cloud. We used to joke about our parents’ generation being unable to program their VCRs and leaving the timers flashing “12:00.” Now those VCR jokes are not only un-hip but incomprehensible to Generation Wired, who are accustomed to streaming videos, syncing devices and instant online how-tos. Technological society makes a person obsolete by a certain age because the world you know never lasts. But for that very reason, Harold Lloyd’s world remains our own.
Victor Morton is an editor at The Washington Times who blogs at Right Wing Film Geek (vjmorton.wordpress.com)
Michael Gerardi is a law clerk for the Hon. Stephen J. Murphy, III, United States District Court, Detroit, Michigan. He writes and blogs intermittently on the arts.