There it is, the famous shot: A man with horn-rimmed glasses desperately hangs onto the minute hand of a building’s clock a hundred feet above the traffic and seemingly seconds from death – or laughter. It’s Harold Lloyd, comedy’s everyman of the 1920s. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is instantly recognizable today, a “universal icon.” Buster Keaton was The Great Stone Face, the stoic in the silliest situations. But Harold Lloyd is forever the plucky man on the clock, the “third genius” of silent movie comedy.
The movie is Safety Last!, the story of “The Boy” as he’s called in the credits, who (accidentally) climbs a skyscraper and wins “The Girl.” That woman in the film is Mildred Davis, often Lloyd’s co-star, who married him two months before his comedy opened on 1 April 1923. After various escapades in the Big City, The Boy decides to risk everything for love – and a $1,000 prize – to attract more traffic to the store where he works. He’ll (pretend to) climb all 12 stories up the outside of the building as a publicity stunt.
After The Boy starts up, his roommate Bill, a nimble-footed steeplejack, will take over shortly and switch places on the roof to make the boy a hero. But a cop gets into the mix and The Boy has to chase Bill who is fleeing the law. Along the way upward, painters almost knock The Boy out a window. A rescuing rope becomes a yoyo string. And then he reaches the building’s clock where Glasses, as film critic Roger Ebert calls The Boy, grabs the hand that pulls the face that falls away and lets the wind remove his hat that blows away above the crowd that cheers him on to finish the stunt that Lloyd built. He just misses falling from the roof to splatter on the sidewalk, but kisses The Girl who waits for him, and walks into The End.
It’s movie magic. The camera keeps the street below in view with traffic barreling past and it’s really him up there – most of the time, though there was a stuntman. Lloyd, however, mostly avoided falling, oh, about 30 feet from a mock-up placed on the roof of 908 South Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The camera angle did the rest to make him “The King of Daredevil Comedy.” John Bengtson explains it all in his 2011 book Silent Visions, with Lloyd’s line “Who wants to fall three stories onto a mattress?”
Born on 20 April 1893 in Burchard, Nebraska, Lloyd moved to San Diego after his parents divorced, and then Los Angeles in 1913. His paternal great-grand parents were from Wales, according to Jose Alfredo Lara of the Alpha Dragon Design site “comedy in the 1920 – 1950’s.” In LA Harold met Hal, a fellow actor who later became Lloyd’s producer. His “Glass character,” a comic go-getter from the Jazz Age, became another star for the studio that produced Laurel and Hardy movies – Hal Roach Studios.
Chaplin and Keaton were two of the comedy triumvirate of the silents, with Lloyd, as titled in film critic Kevin Brownlow’s 1989 book, Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius. He produced his own films after 1924, with1925’s The Freshman the most successful one. His approach to getting laughs followed his line, “The more trouble you get a man into, the more comedy you get out of him.” Safety Last! made the 2001 American Film Institute’s 100 Most Thrilling American Films list. Chaplin and Keaton aren’t on it.
His talkies in the 1930’s were not as successful but perhaps it was Lloyd’s attitude. “I do not believe the public will want spoken comedy. Motion pictures and the spoken arts are two distinct arts.” The over achiever with the glasses didn’t mesh well with the Great Depression, either. Lloyd’s output slowed until his final starring role in 1947’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, directed by Preston Sturges.
After retiring from acting, Lloyd devoted much of his time to civic and charitable causes, such as Shriners Hospitals. As a Freemason , Lloyd was raised in 1925 in Alexander Hamilton Lodge No. 535 in Hollywood, across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where his handprints and the outline of his glasses were immortalized in cement in 1927. He received an Honorary Academy Award in 1953 as a “master comedian and good citizen.” But it’s been only in recent years that his films have been easily available to “top off” his gags. Lloyd died at 77 on 8 March 1971, nowhere near a building clock.