Harold Lloyd: The Man, The Glasses, and The Impact


This entry is part of the Harold Lloyd Blogathon, running from August 6—10th, hosted by salesonfilm, oldfilmsflicker, and tpjost.

The purpose of the blogathon is to raise awareness of the films of Harold Lloyd and reinvigorate interest in celebrating and preserving the Burchard, NE birthplace of Harold Lloyd. Visit Save the Harold Lloyd Birthplace on Facebook for more info.

In 1917, a young up-and-coming film comedian decided enough was enough with simply being a second-rate Chaplin-esque imitator. He wanted to stand out from the majority of comedians, who used grotesque characterizations to market on what Charlie Chaplin had made so popular — and to do that, he had to become ordinary. That September, Harold Lloyd donned the horn-rimmed glasses that would become his greatest trademark, and said goodbye to his previous comic character, Lonesome Luke, forever.

It was a great decision.

The “Glasses Character” was a perfect persona for Lloyd. With that character, he could do so much and tell a variety of stories, but still keep hold of a significant trademark that would make him recognizable. It would set him apart from many of his contemporaries, yet make him accessible to the common 1920s moviegoer.

Lloyd summed up his character in his 1928 autobiography, An American Comedy: “The glasses would serve as my trade-mark and at the same time would suggest the character – quiet, normal, boyish, clean, sympathetic, not impossible to romance. I would need no eccentric make-up, ‘mo’ or funny clothes. I would be an average recognizable American youth and let the situations take care of the comedy.”

While all his characters shared the glasses in common, the character in his films had a wide range of personalities. In Grandma’s Boy, he was a shy, cowardly, and insecure young man who realizes his true potention through faux superstition; in Dr. Jack, he was a reputable doctor; in Safety Last!, he was a country boy struggling to make it in the city; in Why Worry?, he was a rich hypochondriac. The simple specs (which in the 1920s only cost him 75 cents) provided Lloyd with a large canvas to work on.

A large factor in the Glasses Character’s popularity and success was that he was relatable and believable to audiences in the 1920s.  His romances weren’t too far-fetched. And the character nearly always exemplified the enthusiastic, go-getter sort of attitude that was quite characteristic of the 1920s. He was basically the poster child for success — and who in the Roaring Twenties wouldn’t want success?

I don’t doubt that many film fans, both old and modern, could relate Harold’s character to someone they know or could imagine running into someone like him on the street. The fact that the character was ordinary but often put in extraordinary circumstances was exciting and entertaining to audiences because maybe—just maybe— something like that could happen to them.

In many ways, Harold Lloyd the man paralleled his Glasses Character. The greatest example of this is his character in the 1923 classic, Safety Last!

Lloyd’s character in Safety Last! was a small-town boy who moves to the big city with dreams of success, fortune, and the means to marry and provide for his devoted girlfriend, played by future wife Mildred Davis.

Harold Lloyd’s own life follows a similar plot, one of rural upbringing to urban success. Lloyd was born and raised in the small mid-western town of Burchard, Nebraska and his family was constantly on the move, due to his father’s inability to keep a steady job. At a young age, Lloyd realized the importance of enterpreneurship, while also harboring a love for the theatre.

When his father received a monetary settlement for an on-the-job accident in 1912, Harold and his father flipped a coin — heads was New York or wherever else his father decided, tails was San Diego, California. The end result? Harold and his father moved west to San Diego. In San Diego, Harold joined a dramatic school, as both a student and an instructor, but eventually moved to Los Angeles, where moving pictures were just getting their start. By 1913, he was getting work as an extra for various studios until he met fellow film extra Hal Roach, who was planning on establishing his own production company after receiving inheritance money.

Harold Lloyd sought after success with the same enthusiasm as his beloved on-screen persona — and with the same dangers facing him. In a cruel moment of reality imitating art in 1919, Harold lost his thumb and forefinger on his right hand due to an accident with a prop bomb. He almost thought he would never work in movies again, but after regaining his sight and deciding to use a prosthetic glove for his hand, Harold soldiered on.

Just as The Boy in Safety Last! receives a promotion after scaling the department store building for publicity, Lloyd’s own perseverance helped him become one of the most popular comedians of the silent screen and sharing the stage (so to speak) with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

A more fortunate instance of reality imitating art, wouldn’t you say?

And now here’s the part where I talk about how much Harold means to me. (It’s me — sappy posts are practically inevitable, ok? ;P)

If you follow my personal tumblr and have been for a while, you know how much I love Harold Lloyd (and his wife and fellow actress Mildred Davis as well).

Harold was my first real introduction to silent film. And how funny it is that I have my little brother to thank for the introduction to Harold. It was 2 years ago, and at the time my brother was interested in vintage comedians and had heard about Harold Lloyd from a documentary he watched. When Turner Classic Movies played Harold’s 1925 film The Freshman that night, my brother came into my room to watch it. Soon enough, I was watching it with him, laughing and developing a slight crush on Harold and the rest is history.

After watching Speedy a few months after that, I became thoroughly devoted to watching Harold’s films and learning about his life. He quickly became one of my favorite people. And it was through Harold that I began to really delve into more silent films and become enchanted by them.

I became especially attached to both Harold Lloyd AND Mildred Davis, and it’s gotten to the point where even if I never actually had the chance to know them, I still feel as though I know them. They feel like old friends and I can watch their films and always feel comforted. They just make me smile.

What I would not give to sit and talk with them, to hug them and tell them how much they mean to me. Would I even be able to put it in words? I cannot say.

All I hope is that Harold knows how much I love him and his movies, and how devoted I am to his legacy.

So thank you, Harold. Here’s to seeing your films continue to light up the silver screen and make light of our hearts.

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