Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Harold Lloyd: you can't keep a good man down




Drink was, in fact, the curse of the family. Mildred (or “Mid”, or “Molly”, as Lloyd called her) had been an alcoholic from some time in the forties, when it is said she wanted desperately to divorce Lloyd. In her late years a full-time nurse was employed mainly to see that her perfume bottles did not mysteriously get filled with booze, that her habit of drinking Listerine did not get out of hand. In a pathetic family – “a disaster”, as even Lloyd’s kindly friend Simonton put it – she was perhaps the most pathetic member. One thinks of her – never a very mature, forthcoming or stimulating person – wandering the halls of the great house, her husband either absent or preoccupied by one of his interests, her children all gone, and none of them bearing her any very kind feelings, caring mainly for her two companionable poodles and her booze, and one sees the end results of the flaws that, almost from the first, people had detected in Lloyd’s art – its abstractness, its mechanical quality, its lack of real warmth. It is all dreadfully sad.


Harold Lloyd: The Shape of Laughter, 1974

This was one of the more disturbing passages I found in my relentless quest for information about Harold Lloyd. In fact, this whole book sells Lloyd short in just about every facet of his life, but never is it more hurtful than in this personal attack on his family.





One wonders, in fact, if he knew or cared about the surviving members of Lloyd's family, about their feelings for him. He seems to have assumed no one was left who cared two figs about him, or if they did, that they weren't significant enough to merit a modicum of respect.

At the same time, this critic - and I don't name him to cover MY ass, not his! - is one of those unassailable figures in "cinema" (a step up in snobbishmess even from "film") whom no one ever really questions. Even to this day, his work is hugely influential. What puzzles and offends me almost as much as his nasty cracks at his family is his description of Lloyd's art: "its abstractness, its mechanical quality, its lack of real warmth."






This description seriously makes me wonder if he ever saw a Lloyd film, or if he perhaps only saw those "knockabout" one-reel comedies made before 1920. Harold Lloyd features like Girl Shy, Safety Last!, The Freshman and The Kid Brother are so far from "mechanical" that I cannot fathom his comments; Harold's films have moments of pathos and even tenderness that never fail to bring me to tears. The gags are graceful and ingenious, particularly in The Kid Brother where he plays a sort of male Cinderella, washing clothes in a butter-churn and hanging them out to dry on the string of a kite.

I did find out some things about Harold Lloyd and his family, in particular from a more recent bio written by silent film historian Jeffrey Vance in collaboration with Harold Lloyd's granddaughter (whom he raised), Suzanne Lloyd. The book is honest and forthright about the sometimes-serious problems the family had; it was hardly a snow job. But as with most families, the dynamics were complicated, and joy and celebration often ran neck-in-neck with sorrow. To call Lloyd's home life "dreadfully sad" is to miss the point.

Alcoholism is a family pattern, with stubborn roots deeply buried in the soil of generations. Though Harold did not drink, some of those around him did, and it inevitably did them harm. But it's absurdly unlikely that his former leading lady Mildred Davis spent her final years wandering around the halls of their mansion like a ghost. Moreover, "it is said" does not pass as a particularly reliable source of information, and in fact can often mean nothing at all. It's as bad as that godawful phrase "studies show", which too many people seem to swallow without question.







I wasn't there, so I don't know exactly how things were at Greenacres, but I honestly don't think they were anything like this. I do know that the word "mechanical" stuck to Lloyd's films for decades, mainly because people seemed to take this critic's word as gospel. It did irreparable harm for decades and kept his movies buried for far too long.

There's a Lloyd revival going on, thank God, which proves that these descriptions are inadequate and highly inaccurate. In his Everyman's search for love (which is at the core of most of them), Harold Lloyd invented a new genre: the romantic comedy. It could even be argued that he broke ground in screwball comedy with the delightfully wacky Why Worry? I haven't seen every Lloyd film, but I've seen as many as I can get my hands on. The features he made after 1920 are nuanced and three-dimensional. His Glass Character tugs at the heart. But since that cold, abstract label was pinned on him shortly after his death and his work was either unavailable to the public or adulterated practically beyond recognition, it was accepted in the movie world without a lot of question.







This book ends with an acknowledgment section that I find almost harrowing. This is a direct quote:

When Time-Life Films, which will be re-releasing most of Lloyd's films over the next four years, invited me to attempt this critical-biographical sketch of the comedian, it had already commissioned a veteran correspondent of the Time-Life News Service to interview as many friends, relatives and co-workers of Lloyd's as he could find. His remarkably thorough dispatches were placed at my disposal for this book, and it is a pleasure to acknowledge my indebtedness to him. I am sure he would like me to express gratitude to those who provided him information.

This means The Shape of Laughter (a bizarre title that basically means nothing) was not written from primary sources and in fact had "contractual obligation" written all over it. He simply took someone else's material, believed it without question, and wove it into a book. No doubt the correspondent's opinion of Lloyd's work, whatever it was, must have been mixed in to this rehash. It makes one wonder if Time-Life wanted the glossy seal and cache of this particular critic to boost book sales, even if he didn't really write the book. Or did he simply owe them one? Such things are known to happen, but if you ever raise it as a possibility, all hell breaks loose, along with a storm of vitriolic denial.






An even more intriguing clue to the near-disappearance of Lloyd's films after his death is provided by Kevin Brownlow, arguably the world's foremost expert on silent film.

Two years after Lloyd died in 1971, Time-Life signed signed a distribution deal for his films and handled them with a tragic lack of understanding. The shorts were packaged with a commentary in the style of Pete Smith ("Poor Harold! It's doom for the groom unless he gets to his room!"), which effectively sank them without a trace. The features were spared the commentary, but insensitive, honky-tonk scores and the elimination of entire sequences often crippled their effect.

May I add to that the constant, annoying, ridiculously exaggerated sound effects?






In spite of all the factors that came together to compromise the integrity of Lloyd's work, it remained intact in the vault, sleeping, awaiting a second life. No one could have predicted the huge advances in film restoration that would strip the grey veils off his masterpieces and reveal them clean as new. No one could have predicted that Turner Classic Movies would get behind this renaissance, drawing more and more people back to pictures that are so vibrant and well-made that tired old comparisons to Chaplin and Keaton no longer apply.

Lloyd only "comes third" in some people's minds because they weren't there, and because they have had their viewpoint skewed by outdated, poorly-researched critical commentary. The best remedy for this is to buy the superb DVD movie set The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection and watch the hell out of them. I guarantee you, once you start, you won't ever be able to stop.



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