Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Glass Character: synopsis


A novel by Margaret Gunning

Published in April 2014 by Thistledown Press

I would like to introduce you to my third novel, The Glass Character, a story of obsessive love and ruthless ambition set in the heady days of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. This was a time when people went to the movies almost every day, living vicariously through their heroes: Valentino, Garbo, Fairbanks and Pickford. But comedians were the biggest draw, and broad slapstick the order of the day - with one very significant exception.

Standing beside Keaton and Chaplin in popularity and prowess was a slight, diffident man named Harold Lloyd. He hid his leading man good looks under white makeup and his trademark black-framed spectacles. Nearly 100 years later, an iconic image of Lloyd remains in the popular imagination: a tiny figure holding on for dear life to the hands of a huge clock while the Model Ts chuff away 20 stories below.

With his unique combination of brilliant comedy and shy good looks, Lloyd had as many female followers as Gilbert or Barrymore. Sixteen-year-old Muriel Ashford, desperate to escape a suffocating life under her cruel father's thumb, one day hops a bus into the unknown, the Hollywood of her dreams. Though the underside of her idealistic vision is nasty and fiercely competitive, she quickly lands extra work because of her Pickford-esque ability to smile and cry at the same time.

When her idol Harold Lloyd walks on the set, her life falls into a dizzy whirl of confusion, attraction, and furious pursuit. Muriel tries on and sheds one identity after another: bit actress, waitress in a speakeasy, "girl reporter", script writer - while Lloyd almost literally dances in and out of her desperately lonely world, alternately seducing her and pushing her away.

While researching this book, I repeatedly watched every Lloyd movie I could get my hands on. I was astonished at his subtlety, acting prowess and adeptness at the art of the graceful pratfall. His movies are gaining new popularity on DVD (surprisingly, with women sighing over him on message boards everywhere!). The stories wear well and retain their freshness because of the Glass Character's earnest good nature and valiant, sometimes desperate attempts to surmount impossible challenges.

Introduction: Why Harold Lloyd?

The Glass Character is a fictional account of a young girl’s experiences in Hollywood from approximately 1921 to 1962, in which she develops a relationship with silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. Though I did extensive research in exploring the era in general and his life in particular, this story is not intended to be a biography of Lloyd. My main purpose was to communicate atmosphere: the excitement, exuberance and joy of these “high and dizzy” times.

Though I have the greatest respect for the memory of Harold Lloyd, who is in my mind one of the most charismatic performers in screen history, I did not wish to paint him as a two-dimensional figure or a saint. Though his behaviour is not always exemplary in this story, I tried to portray him as I came to believe he was: a human being of enormous complexity, phenomenal talent, and a basic midwestern decency that served him for a lifetime. This is not the Harold Lloyd, but a Harold Lloyd, a personal, fictional portrayal of a supremely gifted artist based on deep research and multiple (and very enjoyable) viewings of his remarkable films.

With his boyish good looks and appealing everyman persona, Lloyd was no less than the inventor of an entire film genre: the romantic comedy. These sample remarks from YouTube (all by women) indicate a charm and magnetism that reaches across generations:

I think he was and still is one of the most attractive men ever to walk the earth. I absolutely love him!

Each time I watch his movies I fall in love a little more.  He is sooooooo funny and the most handsome man ever!

Talented, funny, smart, creative and damn gorgeous!

I find him really attractive with his glasses on, and you can’t beat that half-shy, half-sly smile of his.

I don’t want to say it but he is in my fantasies. . . sigh.

I doubt if George Clooney could inspire such rhapsodic praise.

When I sat down to write, words often tumbled out at a fever pitch. Many of the scenes came to me out of sequence, as if I were shooting a movie. Inspiration had a timetable of its own and sometimes happened on holiday (can you believe I almost missed the Grand Canyon?). This had never happened to me before, and I had to take a few leaps of faith to believe I could ever piece it all together.

Plunging into his pictures to such depth, I experienced an immediacy, even an intimacy I had never known before. I was breathing in the gunpowder and the dust and the sweating horses and the she-loves-me/she-loves-me-not flowers and the white greasepaint. I could hear “roll ‘em” and “cut!” and “damn, we’ll have to do that again.” I was seeing that wonderful “half-shy, half-sly” smile of his in person. 

Though Lloyd’s work has been gloriously reborn through the medium of DVD, he is still too frequently seen as a bronze medallist after those two other legendary figures from the silent age: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It’s time to throw away useless comparisons and hierarchies (is Picasso “better” than Van Gogh? And how about Rembrandt – why does the poor fellow always come in third?), and appreciate Lloyd’s movies for what they are. He is so much more than the “everyman” of popular description. His Glass Character is a subtle, slightly surreal, heart-touchingly brave and boyish silent clown, and if you don’t watch out, he will take up residence in your heart, perhaps for good.

This is Harold Lloyd the way I see him. I hope you enjoy this story.

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