Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Famous Coloradoans: Harold Lloyd

New Yorkers are accustomed to encountering famous actors and authors whilst out and about doing daily errands, and generally the stars are doing the same. One notices someone famous, perhaps in a blur as they pass by, and thinks “Heeyyy...wasn’t that...” then shrugs and continues on one’s way.

New Yorkers are seldom star-struck. We figure the famous are people, just like us, who buy groceries and go to restaurants. Like every other being in the over-crowded city, more than anything else the stars are just in our way.

Clueless as to pop-culture as I am, even I had a few star-sightings over my years in the city. I once saw Kate Hudson walking kids down the street, singing “I Think I Love You” in a  loud, off-key voice. I had an embarrassing interaction with Edmund Morris--embarrassing for me, not for him--that you’ll have to email me to hear more about. A friend nearly ran over Jon Stewart’s children with her bike (in her defense, they were in the bike path!). Another friend occasionally runs into Bono in the bagel shop.

So what does star-sighting have to do with Colorado, you might ask? Unless you are a denizen of Aspen, these sorts of sightings are few and far between out here. One might almost say non-existent.

Well, lest our lovely state get a complex, I’d like to occasionally highlight famous folks who were from, or spent some of their life in, the Centennial State.

One star who certainly would have been recognized in his day, though perhaps not always in ours, is the silent film actor Harold Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd, 1893-1971
Image courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery
You might recall a silent black and white film featuring a man hanging precariously from the hands of a clock, on the side of a building many stories above street level. The film was Safety Last!, and the actor was a resident of Colorado for over a decade.

You can relive that nervous scene here.

Harold Lloyd was born in Nebraska on April 20, 1893, the second son to James D. and Elizabeth Lloyd (his older brother Gaylord would come to work behind the scenes with him in silent film, as well).

His father James would have many jobs in divers professions over the years, but was never terribly successful with any of them. After James uprooted the family a number of times in pursuit of job leads, wife Elizabeth eventually divorced him. Most accounts of Harold’s life indicate that he chose to stay with his father, which is largely true, however the U.S. Census tells a slightly different story.

Beginning in 1900, we see the complete family living in Denver at 64 South Lincoln Avenue. James is listed as a clerk, Elizabeth as a milliner, and both boys are “at-school.” Interestingly to this researcher, the family was listed as living in "Arapahoe County." You may be surprised to learn that Denver was part of Arapahoe County until 1902!

By 1910, however, sixteen year old Harold appears with his mother at his grandmother, Sarah Fraser’s, house in Durango, Colorado. His mother reported she was working in a department store, and interestingly, both his grandmother and uncle are listed as working for the Forest Service!

According to my alma mater, East High School, Lloyd appears to have moved back to Denver after the census (or it is possible he was merely visiting mom at the time it was taken--stranger things have happened). Nevertheless, he was an East High Angel in 1911.

Harold eventually moved out to California with his father, first to San Diego and eventually settling in Los Angeles and beginning a film career. By 1920, we find him living with his father, brother Gaylord and his sister-in-law in Los Angeles. Both brothers are described as a “moving picture actor at the Pathé Company,” and his father "Darsie J." is listed as a secretary for his son.

Over the course of his career, Lloyd acted in approximately 200 films, the bulk of them between 1913 and 1921.

How many Hollywood stars today are so prolific?

Admittedly, a number of these films were shorts, however they came out at the rate of a film every week or so. Lloyd was responsible for the ideas and character creation, acting as the lead role, and even doing his own stunts. That was Lloyd himself hanging from that clock, and he suffered a dislocated shoulder during the filming of it.

Ironically, it was during a 1919 still photo shoot that his career took a hit: holding what he thought was a fake bomb but was actually live, Lloyd lost two fingers, suffered severe burns and nearly lost his sight in one eye when the bomb went off.

After a miraculous recovery, he continued to act while wearing a glove with prosthetic fingers. So in the 1923 Safety Last! shoot Lloyd is hanging from that clock with the use of only 8 fingers! Perhaps this was why his climbing technique looked a little awkward, although I suspect in reality the athletic Lloyd was hamming it up to stir up the nerves of the audience!

Later Lloyd films stretched into two and three film reels, and this, combined with his hiatus due to injury, explains the slower pace of production in the 1920s.

But the slower pace did not mean less entertaining films! In fact, while Lloyd began by creating a variety of characters, then shifted to his Lonesome Luke character (his answer to Chaplin’s Tramp), he finally hit his stride with the character for which he was best known: the awkward, everyday hero wearing a suit, straw boater hat and round glasses.
Lloyd as the "Glass Character." Courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery
Always striving to impress the girl, prove himself and be a hero, the "Glass Character" (often billed as “The Boy”) suffered numerous indignities and comic pratfalls along the way. He was honest, eager, and innovative, and conveyed emotion amazingly well: when he was happy, the audience feels his unadulterated joy. We also cringe with his embarrassments, and root for him to make good in the end.

With such impressive acting, why are modern audiences less familiar with Lloyd? Well, while he grossed more from his films than did Charlie Chaplin, and had more success with his shift into talkies than many of his cohort, Lloyd's refusal to re-release his films during most of his lifetime did hurt his name recognition with later audiences. The more recent renewal of attention to his films can be attributed largely to his granddaughter, who strives today to spark interest in Lloyd's work.

Returning to the Colorado theme, one wonders if Lloyd’s western characters were inspired by his childhood in Nebraska and Colorado. My favorite of his western films--Billy Blazes, Esq.--begins with the statement

“Far out on the silent prairies--the mining town of Peaceful Vale--Nobody has been killed here for almost 20 minutes.”

It also features his rather deft rolling of a cigarette. Video here.

And no list of his western roles would be complete without An Eastern Westerner, in which a New Yorker playboy is sent Out West by his dear old dad to toughen up, pulls off some neat lasso work, and cheats at a game of cards in a saloon. Amusing to this blogger, the film features the line “We’ll run this tenderfoot across the state line.”

This Tenderfoot hopes for some gentler treatment!

Image courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery

For more information on Lloyd’s life, and a list of his films, see the official Harold Lloyd Website.

I gleaned much of my information on his life and work from the following titles:

    1 comment:

    1. Great Fun! Especially loved the clips!