Cinema Retro is pleased to announce the premiere of a new column: Criterion Corner, which will highlight reviews and interviews pertaining to new Criterion video releases. For our debut column, we are honored to have Raymond Benson's exclusive interview with Suzanne Lloyd, granddaughter of legendary comedy star Harold Lloyd.
By Raymond Benson
the advent of The Criterion Collection’s upcoming release of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman on Blu-ray and DVD, it’s
high time that the silent film star gain some recognition from at least two
generations that missed out on seeing this master comedian in action. Last
year’s release of Safety Last! certainly
got the ball rolling, and with Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, working as
the trustee to his film library and head of Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc.,
the goal is to bring the pictures of the “third genius” (after Chaplin and
Keaton) to a wider audience, especially in America.
the fact that Harold Lloyd was a superstar during the silent era, I had never seen
a Harold Lloyd film when I was growing up. Except for some hardcore film
historians and enthusiasts, very few people had a chance to become familiar
with Lloyd’s work over the last seventy-odd years, mainly because Lloyd had
refused to sell his pictures to television. Not only was the offer not high
enough, but he felt that the medium wasn’t right for his movies. If timing and
pace were critical in his comedies, as well as the carefully-planned camera
set-ups, why should he allow television to hack them up with unapproved edits,
insert commercials, and perhaps “cheapen” his work?
admits he made a mistake. “He lost so many generations who don’t know him,” she
says from her office in Los Angeles. “Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton, W. C.
Fields—they were all on television, and that’s who the baby boomers got to
know. In the 1970s, HBO and Time-Life did some of his films for TV in Europe,
but he missed that boat in America.” In the 1980s, however, Suzanne set about
having her grandfather’s films restored. By the New Millennium, she had made a
deal with Turner Classic Movies, and they now have approximately fifty titles
(shorts and features) that are shown regularly. It’s
ironic, because Harold Lloyd made tons of
more films than his counterparts. Nearly two-hundred of them! And while
Chaplin’s individual features were more profitable, Lloyd was overall more
commercially successful because he was so prolific. Lloyd made twelve features
in the 1920s, while Chaplin made only four.
on April 20, 1893 in Burchard, Nebraska, Lloyd wanted to be an actor from an
early age. After moving to Hollywood in 1912, he quickly rose from bit player
to leading man, especially after teaming up with producer Hal Roach. Between
1915 and 1917, Lloyd’s onscreen characters, such as “Lonesome Luke,” were
admittedly knockoffs of Chaplin and others. That changed in 1917, when Lloyd
put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. The “Glass” character, as he called it,
became Lloyd’s signature role that he would play for the rest of his career.
Glass character, often named “Harold” in the pictures, was an Everyman with
whom audiences of the 1910s and 20s could easily identify. Optimistic,
ambitious, and kind-hearted, and perhaps a little naive, Harold was the Boy
Next Door. And every one of his pictures involved the Boy chasing the Girl Next
Door. It was a template for what later became known as romantic comedy.
his legacy,” Suzanne asserts. “He is quite simply the grandfather of the genre.
In his movies he always falls in love with the girl, and then the stories are
all about the chase, trying to impress her, almost losing her, and then finally
getting her in the end. I do believe that our modern romantic comedies owe a
great debt to Harold.”
of the reasons Lloyd was so likable onscreen was that the actor was truly that guy. “He wasn’t someone who ran
around telling jokes, although he would tell jokes; rather he was a lot like
the character—inquisitive, wanting to be first, winning the game, getting
around obstacles, and getting the girl,” Suzanne says. She laughs and
remembers, “He hated losing at a card game, though! He was not a good loser. He
always had to win at any type of game, and he was a great bowler, a champion
handball player, and a good golfer.He
loved the sport of winning, and that
tied into his Glass character as well. He was all about enjoying life and
trying to make it better. He was ‘the glass is half full and not half empty’
kind of man. And this is even more remarkable after what he went through in
year, while posing for publicity shots to promote his current work-in-progress,
the short From Hand to Mouth, a
supposedly fake “bomb” (the big black ball-shaped kind that resembles a cartoon
prop) that he was holding in his right hand actually exploded. It took off his
thumb, index finger, and a third of his palm. Lloyd was blinded and his face
was burned. His sight eventually returned and his face healed, but for an actor
who relied on “thrill comedy”—action stunts, climbing, falling, and the
like—his hand’s disability could have been a career-killer. Instead, after
eight months out of commission, Lloyd bolstered himself up and kept going.
“They fashioned a special glove for him to wear,” Suzanne says. “It looked like
he had all five fingers, and there was an old-fashioned wooden clothes pin
contraption with a strap up his arm. With that, he could make his hand look
whole, and he always wore it in every picture he made afterwards. Luckily, he
was ahead of the game with his releases. He had some in the can, so his studio
staggered the releases while he recovered. News articles said that he had been
hurt, but no one knew how bad it really was.”
the 1920s were good to Lloyd. His films, such as Grandma’s Boy, Safety Last!,
Why Worry?, Girl Shy, The Freshman, The Kid Brother, and Speedy, to name a few, were extremely
popular. And unlike many silent film stars, Lloyd made a smooth transition into
talkies, making several successful sound pictures in the thirties. Suzanne says
that her grandfather embraced sound. “He was dedicated to giving his audience
what they wanted, and he was willing to go to the edge. He was always
progressing. And his voice fit his character, which helped!”
estate in Beverly Hills, “Greenacres,” was a popular destination for the
children of other silent film stars during those exciting years in Hollywood.
Since Lloyd socialized and played tennis with Charlie Chaplin, the Little
Tramp’s first two sons, Charles Jr. and Sydney, often came over to play with
Lloyd’s children—Gloria, Harold Jr., and Peggy. “They would always want to
spend the night and stay over,” Suzanne says. “The boys would tell my mother, ‘your
dad is so generous, he plays with us, plays golf with us, swims with us, throws
ball with us... our dad never does
that!” Shirley Temple was also a frequent visitor to Greenacres. “She actually
lost her first front tooth eating sponge cake at my grandparents’ house, and
boy, was that a big drama for Mrs. Temple,” Suzanne remembers being told. “My family
had to call Darryl Zanuck and say, ‘uhm, guess what!’” Suzanne, who was raised
at Greenacres, had similar experiences with her own friends.“They really liked my grandfather, too. They
asked if they could call him ‘Harry,’ as a nickname, and he let them.He was absolutely a great grandfather—he took
me to Beatles concerts, Las Vegas, and Disneyland. He was happy to be with
In his later years, after retirement from filmmaking, Lloyd became a professional and well-respected photographer, especially in the field of three-dimensional, stereoscopic pictures. He became President of the Photography Society of America, won many awards, and participated in camera clubs in the 1950s with friends such as Art Linkletter, Dick Powell, Edgar Bergen, and Van Johnson. Bettie Page was one of his frequent models, and Marilyn Monroe also posed for him. Suzanne, who has co-authored books of her grandfather’s 3D photographs, says, “It began in the late forties when a friend lent him a stereoscopic camera to play with. He shot around the property and became hooked. He was fascinated by 3D as far back as 1923. During the shooting of Girl Shy, he said, ‘I gotta tell you, the next change in film will be three dimensional, stereoscopic film. It will be the changing platform from the day film became film.’ He loved realism, and 3D was very ‘real’ to him. My grandfather was also fascinated by cameras and angles, which is how he achieved some of the visual ‘tricks’ in his films. For example, he put the camera in a manhole in the street for Girl Shy, and that technique was later copied in Ben-Hur! For The Kid Brother, he fashioned a dumb waiter-like contraption that would move the camera up and down as he climbed a tree. He loved laying track so the camera could follow alongside him. He liked movement.”
Suzanne Lloyd became the trustee of Lloyd’s estate when she was nineteen years old, mainly because to her grandfather she seemed to be the obvious choice from the family. Suzanne’s mother, uncle, and aunt were not interested in doing it. She laughs and says, “It was like being born in the royal family—here are your duties and this is what you have to do. I was raised by my grandparents, and there I was at the age of fourteen or fifteen, curious, snooping around the film library. He must have thought, ‘We finally have someone, it’s piqued her interest.’”
Besides promoting her grandfather’s legacy, Suzanne is also heavily involved in the film restoration movement. Suzanne has sat on the board of and established seminars at the American Film Institute, helped the Library of Congress with restoration projects, and worked closely with David Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute to preserve film. Suzanne recalls, “My career started when Richard Correll, a teenager at the time and a friend of my date, came to a party and asked, ‘Can I help you clean up your film vault, can we start the restoration?’ Harold let him, and to this day he is my grandfather’s archivist. I kept working in the film vaults, labeling film cans, and that’s how I learned.”
Suzanne is very happy with The Criterion Collection’s treatment of Lloyd’s films. There will certainly be more releases from Lloyd’s catalog in the future, and she hints that Criterion’s anthology imprint, Eclipse, may do a collection of her grandfather’s early thirties sound films. As for what her favorite picture might be, she is diplomatic. “That’s a hard one. It kind of moves around. Of his talkies, I can definitely say Movie Crazy. Of the silents, I love Speedy... and The Kid Brother... and—there’s so many good qualities in all of them! It’s probably always the one we’re working on or presenting somewhere at any given time. I just heard a score by Carl Davis for a new release of Why Worry? and that’s the current favorite.”
If that’s how it works, then our current favorite Harold Lloyd picture will most likely be The Freshman, due out from The Criterion Collection on March 25, 2014. With a new 4K digital transfer from a restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the release features a new orchestral score, composed and conducted by Carl Davis; audio commentary by Richard Correll, film historian Richard Bann, and film critic/historian Leonard Maltin; Lloyd’s own prologue for the 1966 re-release; three newly restored Lloyd shorts; Lloyd’s 1953 appearance on What’s My Line?; and much, much more.
For those of you like me who didn’t grow up knowing Harold Lloyd, you just might be in for a revelation.
Many thanks to Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc., and The Criterion Collection for the accompanying photos from The Freshman, and to Suzanne Lloyd for taking the time to talk to Criterion Corner at Cinema Retro.
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