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If Chaplin was the Little Tramp and Keaton the Great Stone Face, who was Harold Lloyd? In Safety Last! (1923), he’s revealed to be “the Mystery Man.” Lloyd’s star has dimmed since the ’20s, when he outgrossed both his rivals combined. Film Forum’s generous Lloyd retro provides some answers to his identity: the boy next door, the harried striver, the total spaz.
But most of all he’s the one with the circular horn-rimmed spectacles—”Magic Glasses,” as Lloyd called them in his 1928 autobiography. The glasses (which in truth had no lenses) made him more human, visibly imperfect. Thus the typical Lloyd plot is one of manhood attained, despite penury, apron strings, superstition, shyness. The motor is in the comic containment of chaos (his basted tux splitting apart at a gala in 1925’s The Freshman, while a tailor contrives to repair it on the sly) and the perfectly machined action sequences, which transformed American cityscapes and pastoralias into scalp-tingling accident corridors, humble horse carts into glorious chariots. Criticized as “mechanical,” Lloyd knew what worked and repeated it: A pioneer of test screening, he charted audience laughs for 1928’s Speedy, breaking the movie down into dozens of specific gags. A more curious technical side has emerged with Hollywood Nudes in 3-D!, a tome of the stereoscopic photos of starkers starlets he began taking in the ’40s, with red-and-blue specs included.
Safety Last! is his crowning achievement and his most formidable metaphor, a model of comic economy that’s also a comic model of one man’s place in the economy. “The Boy” (named Harold) comes to the city eager to seek his fortune, finding work as a clerk at the DeVore Department Store (the very name suggests monstrous appetite). When hinterland sweetheart Mildred (Mildred Davis, whom Lloyd would later wed) surprises him with a visit, he scrambles to get rich quick. His promotional idea—having his friend crawl up the building’s facade—gets the boss’s OK, but he winds up making the ascent himself. Every floor brings new torments. Near the top, Lloyd dangles from the building’s giant clock, shaking hands with the hands of time—appropriately, his most enduring moment. Safety Last! is a dizzying literalization of social climbing and a fine illustration of what might happen if a mouse were to crawl up your pant leg. This is a foundational film that will make you sweat.
If none of his silents can top it, they still feel fresh. In The Kid Brother (1927), Lloyd is a domesticized sissy, cooking and cleaning for his sheriff father and two burly brothers. A thrill-packed shipboard chase also features an indelible performance by an amazingly expressive simian in a sailor suit. The Harold of Girl Shy (1924) is a tailor’s apprentice with an incapacitating stutter, so fearful of women he naturally pens the roué’s guide The Secret of Making Love. In the breathless crescendo, Harold hightails it to the altar, via every conceivable land vehicle, to save his beloved from a bigamist swell—named DeVore! Intent on being a hit in college, The Freshman‘s “Harold Lamb” affects the getup and trademark jig of a cinema varsity type. Milked for money by his classmates, Harold becomes the football squad’s water boy. The genius hidden-tailor set piece is matched only by Harold’s fourth-quarter redemption, a loopy adrenaline rush.
With the dawn of the talking picture, Lloyd noted skeptically: “Apparently it will multiply many times the emotional appeal of the screen, opening unguessed possibilities.” Still, he was game, and his talkies, though inferior, have their moments. Welcome Danger (1929), Lloyd’s first foray, has a playful bit of envelope pushing: At one point, the lights go out and voices alone carry the story. (Film Forum closes the series with a run of the differently cut silent version, made for theaters unequipped for sound, and unseen since.) Movie Crazy (1932) parodies the new sonic paradise, with Lloyd repeatedly butchering the line “I love you!” at an audition. Despite a silly Egyptology plot, Professor Beware (1938) satisfies with a ventriloquism gag, a massive melee aboard a yacht named Memory, and a train-top sequence as exciting as Jackie Chan’s homage to it in Supercop.
Less successful sound ventures are The Milky Way (1936), The Cat’s Paw (1934), and Preston Sturges’s The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), which brought Lloyd out of retirement (he quit moviemaking after Professor Beware flopped). Sin is The Freshman‘s nightmare sequel, and its demolition job on Lloyd’s youthful persona is initially fascinating, as it follows the re-surnamed Harold to a miserable job. The decades grind him down, his suit as tattered as the disintegrating tux in The Freshman. But the bracing sourness gives way to desperation, as Harold goes on an amnesia-inducing bender that leaves him with, among other things, ownership of a circus. As far as Lloyd footnotes go, stick to the naked starlets.