When Harold Lloyd stopped in Chicago in the spring of 1923, publicists for his new film, Safety Last, wanted him to appear on the south tower of the Wrigley Building and dedicate its clock with a bottle of champagne. The stunt was modeled on the film’s heart-stopping scene in which Lloyd’s character–a lowly department store clerk–caps his ascent of a 12-story building by dangling from the minute hand of the clock on top. Lloyd went up to the 26th floor, where a steeplejack was supposed to don his coat, hat, and trademark tortoise-shell glasses and double for the star while suspended in a rope seat. At a 1969 seminar in Los Angeles, Lloyd recalled that his stand-in then dropped out due to the high winds, saying, “Gentlemen, I need the money but I don’t want to commit suicide.” As Lloyd told it: “So I got a megaphone and I went downstairs. I got on a taxicab. I got the crowd’s attention, and I told them exactly what happened. I told them I did not want to commit suicide. Of course, it became a big joke. We got tremendous play in all the Chicago papers, more than if we had gone through with the stunt.”
The clock scene in Safety Last provided one of the most enduring and iconic images of silent-era comedy. The film hit fans’ funny bones, sometimes hard: “Woman Faints as Lloyd Pulls Rare Thriller,” read one headline of the day, and Chicago Daily News critic Carl Sandburg lauded it as “full of the tricks which have earned him his friends.” In a later review of Lloyd’s The Kid Brother Sandburg hailed the popular comic as “the king of them all when it comes to pleasing American audiences . . . .The fun is there. It is clean, it is direct and it is American.”
Born in 1893 in Nebraska, Lloyd went to California, never finishing high school, and first got work as an extra in a 1913 one-reeler playing a Yaqui Indian waiter. The next year he played a eunuch in the biblical tale Samson and a “Tottenhot” in The Patchwork Girl of Oz. His first two leading man personas were unmemorable knockoffs of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, but in 1917 he stepped out in the baseball comedy Over the Fence as his “glass character,” wearing the lensless eyewear favored by young men of the time, and audiences embraced him. Fresh-faced and industrious, Lloyd made a successful brand of his all-American everyman, netting himself a fortune through the 20s. But his boyish boosterism and athletic stunts fell out of favor during the Depression.
“Out of his thesaurus of smiles he could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity, and still remain tremendously likable,” rhapsodized James Agee in Life in 1949, after Lloyd’s career had waned following a few unsuccessful forays into talkies. That was the year Lloyd made the cover of Time upon his election as Imperial Potentate of the Shriners. In retirement, when not fulfilling civic duties as a director of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, he pursued his hobbies: magic tricks, exotic cars, high-fidelity stereo systems, abstract painting, and 3-D nude photography. In 1952, the same year Chaplin left the U.S. as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee hunt for Hollywood reds, Lloyd was awarded a special Oscar as a “master comedian and good citizen.”
Lloyd is often ranked by critics behind the more idiosyncratic Chaplin and Buster Keaton, though he bested them at the box office. One secret to his success with fans may have been his habit of routinely screening as many as seven versions of a film for test audiences. He continued this practice in the early 60s when he put together edited compilations of his films, which he’d kept out of distribution for decades. “I went to screenings with him, then we’d go home and add up all the cards,” recalls his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, executive producer of the documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius and coauthor of the lavishly illustrated book Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. In a 1923 Ladies Home Journal article Lloyd claimed that he satisfied moviegoers by achieving “a certain standardization of comedy” and “blending of average tastes,” a marketing strategy that seems startlingly contemporary.
On Friday, July 19, at 8 PM the Silent Summer 2002 Film Festival will screen Safety Last in a restored 35-millimeter archival print from the Harold Lloyd Trust with live organ accompaniment by Jay Warren and an introduction by Suzanne Lloyd at the Copernicus Center’s Gateway Theatre, 5216 W. Lawrence. Festival passes for all five films in the series are $46, $40 for seniors and students. Tickets for individual films are $8 in advance, $7 for seniors and students, and $10 on the day of the show, with the exception of the August 2 screening of Douglas Fairbanks’s The Black Pirate, which is an additional $6. Tickets are available Monday through Friday between 10 and 4 at the Copernicus box office and Thursday through Sunday from 11 to 3 at the Society for Arts (1112 Gallery), 1112 N. Milwaukee. For more information call 773-777-9438.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy the Harold Lloyd Trust.