The best of the best: Harold Lloyd

by Martin Hafer

I am a huge fan of silent films–especially the comedies. However, most folks who want to see a silent comedy have no idea where to start. The very earliest comedies tended to be filled with slapstick–where the jokes consist mostly of folks getting hit on the head, kicked in the butt or taking other pratfalls. Kids love these films but they lack depth and do not represent the best of the silent era. A bit later, in the 1920s, comedies came into their own–with complex stories, wonderful characters and a lot of artistry.

Of these early comedians, one of the best is a name seldom heard of today–Harold Lloyd. While not nearly as famous now as Chaplin or Keaton, back in the 20s, Lloyd was the most successful movie comic of his day. His characters were about as far removed from the age of slapstick as you can find–sort of an bespectacled everyman who actually looked very normal but who manages to somehow do amazing things. The films also were very character-driven–with laughs being secondary to the story.

If you’re willing to give his films a chance, I suggest you try one of the films below first, as they represent the best of his films:

The Kid Brother (1927): Harold plays the youngest and weakest of the men in the Hickory family.  His oldest brothers laugh at him and expect little from the bookish Harold.  As a result, they often make fun of him and he strives not only for their acceptance but to win the hand of a sweet lady by proving his worth.

Why I loved it: While this film has some funny scenes, the story and character development is primary in this movie.  Along with Safety Last and The Freshman, this is probably Lloyd’s best film.  It’s a wonderful and lovely film–with gentle humor and a wonderful romanticism that make it a truly artistic experience when you watch it.  The tree-climbing scene is simply amazing due to the great camerawork and sensitivity.

Safety Last (1923):  Harold is an up and coming young man working for a big department store.  He wants to come up with a big stunt to impress his boss and drum up interest in the company, so he proposes that someone will climb a tall office building as a publicity stunt.  However,  the guy he hires is being chased by the cops–and so he convinces Harold to begin the climb and this professional climber promises that he will take over soon thereafter.  But again and again, problems erupt and the switch never occurs–and Harold is left to do this insane climb.

Why I loved it: This film is Lloyd’s most famous and it’s amazing to watch because it all looks so real.  What’s more amazing is that Lloyd did most of the climbing…even though a short time earlier in his career he’d lost several fingers in an accident (which you cannot see since he wore flesh colored gloves to hide this).  Very funny and very spectacular. You can watch Safety Last below.

Safety Test

The Freshman (1925):  Harold is headed to college.  However, this nerdy guy tries way too hard to impress everyone and make friends—and ends up becoming a laughing stock in the process.  Can Harold redeem himself in the big football game?

Why I loved it: This is a sentimental favorite since I saw this on the big screen when I was a kid (no, I am NOT that old–this was in the 1970s).  The humor starts a bit slowly and becomes more prevalent as the film progresses–all because the emphasis is on his character as opposed to cheap laughs.  As a result, your heart breaks for the guy and you really are pulling for him throughout the movie.

Girl Shy (1924):  Harold plays the most painfully shy guy you could imagine.  Surprisingly, he’s decided to write a book about dating!  At the same time, he’s met a lovely lady and things go well until she learns about the book–and she’s furious.  Now, instead of marrying Harold she has set her eyes on another guy–a guy who turns out to be a real jerk.  Can Harold save her from making a big mistake?

Why I loved it: This film isn’t quite as perfect as some of his best films but it is very funny….very, very funny.

Movie Crazy (1932):  Harold is a bit dim in this one and thinks he’s got what it takes to be a leading man in movies.  He sends his photos to some studios in Hollywood and just shows up–expecting that they’ll be anxious to make him a star.  However, it’s not that easy and he can only find parts as an extra….and he’s also terrible!  However, he’s so terrible that folks take notice and they make him a leading man.  But he doesn’t realize that his films are comedies and he keeps acting as if he’s some sort of American heartthrob!  What will he do when he learns the truth?

Why I loved it: This is Lloyd’s most underrated film as many folks assume he could only make memorable silents.  While he only made a few talking pictures, this one is terrific–with charm and laughs galore.  It also features one of the best and multidimensional leading ladies of his films.

Dr. Jack (1922):  Harold plays the title character, Dr. Jack.  Jack is a wonderful doctor and is adored by his patients.  However, a healthy young lady is being treated by a very famous but highly unethical doctor  who has convinced her she is quite ill.  Dr. Jack, naturally, is horrified by this but since he’s young and inexperienced, folks don’t believe him when he tells her she is just fine.

Why I loved it: This film is very funny and how Jack uses an escaped maniac to solve this problem certainly is very creative!

Grandma’s Boy (1922):  Harold is an extremely wimpy man who lacks confidence, so his clever grandma creates a good luck charm that will help him.  Naturally the good luck charm is a hoax but Harold believes in it and soon is doing incredibly brave and wonderful things–such as joining in a posse to capture a dangerous criminal!

Why I loved it: Great cinematography, pacing and excellent laughs all work together to make this his best film up until that time. Plus, unlike most comedies of the time, this one is quite artistic and sweet.

Now that I’ve given you a few recommendations, it’s up to you to find these films.  Several are available through Netflix and Turner Classic Movies runs many of his movies throughout the year. If you are lucky enough to find it, there is a wonderful set of films called The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection. Unlike other comedians, Lloyd maintained ownership and control over most of his films and this is a pristine set of his best. It’s out of print but worth paying extra, as it’s everything any fan could want.  Good luck and let me know what you think.