Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Dilemma of Harold Lloyd

When is a comedian not a comedian?

Of the “big three” silent clowns working in the golden age of comedy, Harold Lloyd is frequently distinguished apart from Chaplin and Keaton as being more of a “comic actor” rather than a comedian. This is a puzzling distinction to anyone watching the films, because on-screen, Lloyd is just as funny as Chaplin and Keaton, and his films demonstrate perhaps the highest degree of sheer inventive and brilliant gags.

It is in this last point, though, that the key to understanding this distinction can begin to be seen. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd relied more strongly on gags and situational humor in his comedy style. Chaplin and Keaton had both developed their characters early in their screen careers (Chaplin had developed the basic costume and mannerisms in his second film, and Keaton’s dead-pan, rough-house style was apparent almost from the very beginning of his work with Roscoe Arbuckle). Lloyd, however, had entered acting with aspirations to be a dramatic actor. He acted in touring dramatic companies prior to entering film. Anyone familiar with Chaplin or Keaton’s backgrounds on the stage might wonder why this distinction is worth mentioning. Of course, the key difference is that the stage work done by Chaplin and Keaton contributed extensively to the development of their comic characters, as well as situations to which they would return throughout their film careers. Lloyd, on the other hand, entered films as an extra, playing a Yacqui Indian in an Edison subject from 1913, then going on to do a number of other bit parts in dramatic pictures. His good fortune came in meeting up early with Hal Roach, who began producing a series of films in 1915, and recruited Lloyd as his star comic.

The “Willie Work” character that Lloyd developed lacked the distinguishing features required by the leading comics of the day, and was thus unremarkable (apparently, the first couple of shorts they made with the character didn’t even get picked up for distribution). Unhappy with the situation at Roach, Lloyd moved over to the Keystone lot, where he found himself a “little fish in a big pond” among Sennett’s star roster of clowns. He often found himself in supporting roles, including some alongside Roscoe Arbuckle who-along with Chaplin-was perhaps the most significant comedian of the World War I era. After his stint at Keystone, Lloyd returned to work with Roach, developing the “Lonesome Luke” character, a kind of inversion of Chaplin’s Tramp, and set to work turning out a large number of one- and two-reel comedies with the character.

It’s worth noting that by 1916, Lloyd had already appeared in far more films than either Chaplin or Keaton would, at least during the silent period. A recurring theme in his career, especially in this period, seemed to be a drive to continually explore and test new approaches to his work, even if they weren’t always entirely successful. For instance, he could have easily just stayed on with Roach as star comic from the get-go, but he made a fairly bold decision to try his luck at Keystone-bold, because the Keystone lot at that time was a very competitive place to put it mildly. Returning to Roach could have been seen as a mild defeat, but instead, Lloyd took advantage of the situation to work at a prolific rate and to try to develop the kind of comic character that had eluded him.

Because Chaplin and Keaton had both started on the stage, much of their humor came from their stage backgrounds-in the English music hall and vaudeville circuits, respectively. A key difference for Lloyd is that he never had that comic training, so he learned “on the fly”, while making movies. And just as the stage was a major shaping influence for so many clowns, vaudevillians, acrobats and so on who made the transition to film, film itself would be a major influence on Lloyd. His comic character, for instance, was a pastiche of other, more successful comedy film characters (most notably Chaplin). And when he made the transition to his fully-developed, “mature” character in 1917, his inspiration would again come from film.

Lloyd had seen a film about a meek parson, and was inspired by the fact that the character wore glasses. He decided that, by adopting something of this persona, he could create a character who was more sympathetic, less grotesque, and overall more like an “average guy” rather than the gallery of highly-stylized clowns who were working at Sennett and other companies during the time. Thus the “glass character” (as Lloyd called him) was born.

It also helped that he was working for Hal Roach, a comedy genius sympathetic to Lloyd’s approach. In the 20s, Roach would become noted for his situational comedies, relying more on plots and situations rather than breakneck chases or roughhouse slapstick. In many ways, Lloyd helped lay the foundation for this kind of humor in silent comedy, even if as a comic tradition it pre-dates cinema and has a long history on the stage. (It would also be unfair to forget such comics as John Bunny and Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, who worked in this style during the early 1910s, especially before the Keystone format really became the standard). In addition to the “parson” film that he’d cited as an influence, another clear inspiration on Lloyd was actor Charles Ray, who specialized in a kind of rural, small-town boy persona in many of his films, and this was certainly a characterization that Lloyd would return to in the 20s.

So far, we can see how Lloyd’s lack of a comic stage training, as well as his influences within the cinematic medium, set him apart from other clowns working during the period. His frankly unremarkable comic character that he’d been working with, in an effort to ape the success of other grotesque comics, worked well enough, but remained undistinguished from so many others. The really big players in silent comedy during the WWI and post-war years were moving away from more generic slapstick toward fully developed characters, and unique comic styles suited to their personas.

Chaplin is the most obvious of these. Audiences had watched the development of his Tramp character from its prototype at Keystone, to its development at Essanay, and the full maturation of the character at Mutual. With the signing of his First National contract, Chaplin would be able to take the character to new heights and place him in longer, more complex films that dealt with often more serious themes than one was accustomed to seeing in comedy shorts of the period. On the other hand, there was Roscoe Arbuckle who, in the years before his career was rocked by scandal, made some of the most inventive and delightfully surreal comedies the screen had yet seen. Working with his nephew, the rubber-limbed Al St. John, and a young New York stage comic-Buster Keaton, Arbuckle’s films produced for the Comique company stand next to Chaplin’s films in terms of sheer creativity and masterful execution of gags.

In this environment, the time was definitely right for Lloyd to create a new character. This creates another distinguishing feature about Lloyd’s approach: it’s inconceivable that Chaplin should have abandoned the Tramp in 1918 and switched characters and comic styles completely. Similarly, Arbuckle had developed from the comic “fat boy” of the early Keystones into a mature character capable of both wild knockabout and moments of pathos. As for other clowns, their work may have been far more routine, but they were certainly consistent and quite good at what they did, and even the most cardboard characters could be very funny with the right gag men and directors.

Lloyd’s comedy style could be distinguished from the other major clowns in another way: his films are extremely plot-heavy. Chaplin never cared much for plot as such; even his early, self-directed Keystone efforts tend to favor letting the shot linger on him performing various bits of business. And of course Chaplin could make even the simplest actions funny, such as running a feather-duster over a fan in THE NEW JANITOR, his business with the mop and bucket in THE BANK, or even his reaction shots to Ben Turpin’s mugging in HIS NEW JOB. Arbuckle could perform the most complicated bits of business with incredible grace and ease, making them look so easy. Keaton, who began making his own series of films in 1920, was also known for making the incredibly difficult appear incredibly natural and simple.

Lloyd’s short films often begin with a cast list, identifying all the major characters in the piece, as well as explanatory titles setting up the exposition of the plot. The films often take full advantage of the two- and three-reel running times. It is no coincidence that Lloyd was the first of the clowns to make the move to features on a full-time basis, because his approach seemed to warrant the longer running time more than any other. The question of the “move to features” is a difficult one, because technically, we’d have to point to Chaplin in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE as the first, but this was obviously a one-shot deal that wouldn’t be repeated for some time. Mabel Normand made MICKEY for Mack Sennett in 1918, and Arbuckle would appear in some features for Paramount in the early 20s. The distinction has been made, at least in the case of the Arbuckle features, that they were more in the “genteel” tradition of screen comedy, based on plot and situations. In this sense, they aren’t that different from the kinds of approaches Lloyd was moving toward. And of course, Chaplin had made THE KID in 1921, but returned to making shorts for another two years afterward.

In any case, regardless of who was first, it is true that when Lloyd made the move to features full-time in 1922, there was no looking back. His first effort had been the four-reel A SAILOR-MADE MAN in 1921. GRANDMA’S BOY had been expanded into feature-length with the addition of newly-created gags added after preview screenings. The film told the story of a meek young country boy who is inspired to stand up to a bully after hearing stories of his grandfather’s bravery in the Civil War. Harold gains the courage to stand up to the bully as well as drive a menacing tramp out of town. With DOCTOR JACK (also 1922), Lloyd created his first feature that was designed as such from the outset.

Because Lloyd relied more heavily on plots and situations, he has been called less “inherently funny” than the other clowns. Lloyd himself said, in response to the accusation that he relied strictly on plot and material for laughs, “Well, that’s not true. If true at all, it’s true of all comedians. Every comedian must have material. And he must create situations and conditions.”

The differences are minor, but can be seen if one looks closely enough. To compare Lloyd’s Civil War comedy, GRANDMA’S BOY, with Keaton’s THE GENERAL, it can be seen that Lloyd’s film relies on its construction of plot to carry the film. To be fair, the films are still quite different, as the Civil War is referenced only in a flashback in Lloyd’s film, whereas it provides the historical context and setting for Keaton’s film; I use the “Civil War comedy” label as more a convenient shorthand for talking about a theme that appears in both. In Lloyd’s film, the gags arise out of the plot and situations. He must keep the story moving in order to allow for new situations out of which he can create gags. In Keaton’s film, on the other hand, the “plot”, as such, is practically put on hold while the audience watches him struggle to maneuver the train, search for timber, load a cannon, etc. Here, it is really the reactions of Keaton’s character that provide the interest for the viewer, and his interactions with his environment.

Chaplin’s films took another route entirely; frequently, he’d surround his “plot” scenes with extended comic sequences which could almost be appreciated outside of the film. Granted, the narrative thrust that provides the motivation for the prize fight sequence in CITY LIGHTS gives it an added dramatic component, but the viewer would find it just as funny whether or not he or she knows specifically why Charlie is fighting in the match. Similarly, even the “shoe-eating” bit in THE GOLD RUSH is a singularly funny, standalone sequence, and does not really need to be seen in the context of the entire film to be effective. (Chaplin himself seemed to recognize this, and culminated his work in the silent medium with the picaresque MODERN TIMES, whose plot serves as a clothesline on which to hang a number of comic sequences). The films of Laurel and Hardy are another example of this idea at work-they were always at their best when working at a relaxed, leisurely pace which allowed them to develop their gags naturally, rather than to force them into the confines of a strict linear narrative progression (the best example, in their feature-film work at least, may be BLOCKHEADS). It’s no coincidence that Lloyd’s most famous sequence, the building-climb from SAFETY LAST, is also the sequence from all his films that stands well on its own, even out of the context of the narrative.

To take this idea to the extremes, one could also argue that we don’t really care just why Abbott and Costello are discussing putting together a baseball team when they perform “Who’s on First?”, nor do we really care just why W.C. Fields has to sleep on the back porch in IT’S A GIFT. The film’s plots serve merely as an excuse to get them into these set-ups. It’s not so much the situation that’s funny, but what the comedian does with it. It’s hard to imagine watching Lloyd eat a hard-boiled egg and making it side-splittingly funny the way Stan Laurel could.

Many of Lloyd’s best comic sequences, on the other hand, really need to be seen as part of the overall plot in order to really work. This may be one of the reasons that his films never worked as well in the forms of excerpts in compilations, such as HAROLD LLOYD'S WORLD OF COMEDY or HAROLD LLOYD’S FUNNY SIDE OF LIFE. Because his comic sequences did not originate as standalone vaudeville bits, honed over a period of years on the stage, but rather emerged as fully-formed parts of a narrative whole, Lloyd’s films truly must be seen in their entirety in order to be fully appreciated. Lloyd is a truly narrative filmmaker, then, in addition to being a very funny comic artist. His approach can be seen as a different one, though by no means it in inferior, in any way.

Character development remained the central plot device of almost all of Lloyd’s films. The one exception to this may be HOT WATER (1924), in which he plays a married man who has problems with the in-laws. It’s one of his funniest films, to be sure, but lacks the kind of character arc seen in so many of his other works. THE KID BROTHER may just be his most satisfying film from a character development standpoint, because the goals he wants to achieve are almost universal, whereas his character’s goals in SAFETY LAST and even THE FRESHMAN are a little more tied to the time and place of the culture that produced the films. His character types tended to differ from film to film; often alternating between the small-town boy trying to make good, or the rich idler who learns about the important things in life. Buster Keaton also frequently used variations on these character types, yet underneath it all, he was still the clearly defined “Buster” character, and even kidded this fact in moments like that in STEAMBOAT BILL JR. when, trying on a series of hats at a store, he comes across his trademark porkpie hat, and it is immediately tossed aside. This type of gag wouldn’t have worked for Lloyd, because he really becomes the character in a fundamental way, which is a tribute to his skills as an actor. Chaplin rarely underwent any kind of real character transformation in his films, partly because his character was so iconic and well-defined, and because he liked to brings his plots full-circle, with his character ending up where he’d started, often walking off down the road with resignation and acceptance of his station.

Lloyd, then, used character development in a more complex way than other comics. Along with his emphasis on a strong narrative, and an astonishing degree of cinematic inventiveness, he shaped his films in such a way that they require the viewer to engage fully with the film from start to finish, in a way the best comics were able to do.

To say that Harold Lloyd isn’t a “comedian” is to set up a distinction that, I think, misses the point. It is worth noting the differences he brought in his approach to his work, but it is wrong-headed to suggest that they make him any less a comic artist than Chaplin or Keaton. Lloyd’s use of the medium of film is unique to him, and it is difficult to think of any other comic filmmaker who was able to so successfully integrate narrative and gags within their work.


rudyfan1926 said...

This is a wonderful piece! Very perceptive comments on Harold Lloyd. Thanks for posting!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Well done, Matt.

Mandy Higgins said...

I became a Harold Lloyd fan when I saw The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947). The scenes where Diddlebock takes the lion to different banks looking for investors into his circus is amazingly funny. I liked it so much, I wrote about it for an online magazine! You can find the article at