Saturday, May 25, 2013

The day I saw Harold's shorts

I want to tell you about a really bizarre dream I had last night. Let’s see if I can make the weird pieces of it fit together. Someone, maybe my mother when she was younger, was holding up a baby, swinging it like a prize turkey from the straps of a front-carrier. She said something like, “Do you want this?” I was a bit embarrassed because I wasn’t sure. Then I saw Suzanne Lloyd, Harold Lloyd's granddaughter, and it appeared that she was giving the baby to me. She was sort of bequeathing it to me in a way that was actually very tender. So I said yes. Then I realized the “baby” was a reborn doll, one of those silicone things that looks so real it’s creepy. Nevertheless, I began to take care of the doll exactly as if it were real.

This dream didn’t lead to anything, but, like most dreams,  just trickled away. In spite of how it sounds, it wasn't clear who the baby was supposed to be (though it was a boy with black hair). I was once told that baby dreams represent the rebirth of self. Hooey, really, unless rubber dolls express the soul. 

So what IS a doll, anyway: a representation, a symbol? We still seem to need them. Right now as I write this, a Harold Lloyd doll sits on my desk, perpetually smiling. I designed him a couple of years ago, stitched him together and made him saddle shoes and a little straw hat. A juju, no doubt, emanating a spooky black-and-white power. 

Which brings me to my central point:  yesterday, for the first time in my life,  I saw Harold Lloyd’s shorts.

Shorts. Yes. Specifically, these were his first popular films, made between 1917 and 1919. He had just latched on to his Glass Character (the eccentric name Lloyd used to describe the “glasses character” that made him famous), and was testing it out in one-reel comedies that raced along at a terrific pace.

Before these came on, I was having another attack of “Lloyd synchronicity”. I’ve written about this before: strange coincidences, encounters with the name Lloyd or even images of Harold himself. The other day, I could tell it was starting again: I watched a quirky show called William Shatner’s Weird or What?, an episode in which the name Lloyd appeared three times (two different scientists, and a producer). I thought to myself: OK, I’ve had the trifecta, so what if I had a fourth? You don’t need a fourth, a little voice in my head warned me.

Only a moment later I changed channels, and . . . there was my fourth. My hair nearly stood on end, just like Harold’s: it was a stylish little animated segment, only a few seconds long, of a cartoon Harold Lloyd swinging from a huge clock, the image that made him famous all over the world.

So my trifecta had somehow evolved into a quadrifecta. But this was before the shorts, which I encountered quite by accident the next evening when I flipped to Turner Classics, my default channel. (This is my sanctuary when “reality” TV and other mediocre programming becomes too much, or not enough.) There was Suzanne Lloyd, yes, the same Suzanne Lloyd as in my dream, talking to Ben Mankiewicz about the restoration of Harold’s early one-reel comedies.

The early comedies! I hadn’t seen them, because for the most part they weren’t available, or existed only in muddy unrestored versions. I had that pulled-back-and-forth feeling I always get when faced with a new Lloyd treasure. I wanted to see it, and I didn't want to see it.

I saw it.

The only reason I wouldn’t want to see it is the fact that a few years ago, I wrote a novel with Harold Lloyd at its core. At this point, editors and publishers are kind of looking at it and not seeing it. I even had one tell me, “I don’t think the public is interested in silent movies” (and this was right around the time The Artist, a silent movie about silent movies, was winning the Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars). What I`m getting now is, “The 1920s is too out of date, no one wants to read about it.” So the Jazz Age is boring?  I want to say to them: does the name Jay Gatsby mean anything to you?

Harold, Harold! If only you hadn’t smiled that way. I don’t know, he's contagious or something, and somehow (after all these years) he finds his way into your heart. This is why he got so famous to begin with (along with certain other things, like charisma, inventiveness, great stories, dramatic acting skills – and, to top all that – being damn funny!).

So what started all this? Why Harold Lloyd? I was initially led into this exploration by seeing his back. Not many actors can act with their back, but he could.  I had Turner Classics on and was half-asleep, when a “figure” appeared walking in a certain jaunty manner, walking away from the camera I mean. All we saw was his back. I found myself saying out loud, “That’s Harold Lloyd.”

I don’t know how I knew.

Of course I remember seeing the iconic photo of Harold dangling from the hands of a huge clock 20 stories up. It was in some big coffee-table book of my childhood, a book I loved – I think it was called The Movies or some-such thing. I don’t know if I ever saw a film clip of that scene – perhaps, in one of those awful compilations that used to appear in movie theatres in the 1960s. Awful because shown at the wrong speed, horribly edited, and scored with clangy ridiculous music, not to mention embarrassing narration which was completely unnecessary in an age when story was conveyed visually and didn’t need idiotic explanations.

Anyway, the hunt was on for YouTube snippets, and I quickly found them and became addicted. I didn’t even think of writing about him at that point because the task seemed too huge. I was digging around the internet and finding things, putting scraps together into a meaningful whole. I had ordered the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection on DVD, but I hadn’t seen it yet.

It was a Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in my office not thinking of anything, in a sort of twilight state, when – something landed on me, “fell” on me like those big anvils in cartoons. BONGGGG. My next thought was, “Oh, noooooo.”

No, because an idea had fallen on me that I knew I couldn’t say no to. An idea that would probably kill me, or at least break my heart.

Then it was: you have to. No, no! You must have the wrong person.

Reluctantly, I rolled up to my computer. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to sketch a little, to get some ideas down.

Three hours later I looked up, and I realized I had the nucleus of my novel. Cells had begun to split and multiply like mad. I was powerless in the hands of Harold.

In spite of my early trepidations, this was the most enjoyable writing project I had ever undertaken. I couldn’t wait to get to the computer every morning, couldn’t wait to solve another mystery. The story evolved and evolved.  I became, I suppose, wildly overconfident, just certain that this novel would be snapped up somewhere, that someone else would feel the same way I did.

At the same time, that weird “Lloyd synchronicity” began, coming thick and fast. At the peak of it, it was averaging three or four times a day: a street sign, a name on the side of a train, an actor on TV, a  realtor, a bull terrier. One tiny movie, The Wrong Box with Michael Caine, had three (or maybe four) Lloyds in it. It was spooky, but I never figured out what it meant.

One day, driving towards North Vancouver on a busy highway, we crossed an ordinary residential street that intersected the road, leading to what looked like a pastoral small town. I was almost annoyed when I saw that it was called Lloyd Avenue. The town was like Brigadoon, weird and highly unlikely. I glanced to the right and said, “Oh, NO.” There was a huge church just sitting there as if it had popped up out of the ground. GLORIA PENTECOSTAL TABERNACLE. I saw two street signs intersecting: the church was at the corner of Gloria and Lloyd.

I guess I’d better tell you that Gloria was the name of Lloyd’s daughter.

And oh, there was more! Watching old Twilight Zone episodes, I always had an eerie feeling when the end credits came on. Well might I have felt strange: one night the name Suzanne Lloyd flashed on the screen. Not the same one, of course, but an actress with the same name. Not "close" but bang-on.

I won't count all those other strange things, such as pictures jumping off the walls or setting a knife down on the edge of a plate and hearing it buzz for about ten seconds (only to have it stop, then start again), or losing things and finding them in a different part of the house. No doubt it was seismic activity, or the weird energy that turned the TV on and off by itself when my daughter hit puberty (not a ghost, my medium friend assured me, but concentrated energy manifesting in all sorts of weird ways). I also can't explain why none of this scared me, though at times it could get annoying.

But publishers don't care about psychic phenomena, real or imagined. They want to make money, and one can't blame them. Though quite a few houses wanted to see the work, I wondered if they were actually reading it. I kept hearing that things were tough all over, that lots of writers were being affected by the economic downturn and the fact that “people don’t read any more” (a blatant untruth).

Battlescarred, I retreated. I retreated for a long time. About eleven months. I did not want to see Lloyd movies or read Lloyd material, and I certainly did not want to look at my manuscript. I assumed it was over.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a strange sort of thaw. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I woke up and found myself back in Lloyd territory again, maybe looking at pictures at first. Throwing out a crumb about the novel. I posted something on Facebook, when my Facebook account had been dormant for a year. The Lloyd synchronicity that had come so thick and fast, then vanished just as quickly, started up again. Was I imagining the whole thing?

When I saw Harold's shorts, he came racing frenetically back into my life.

I don’t regret all of this, or maybe I do, or else I am just powerless. Whenever I am about to walk away, the path doubles back.  I am reminded of one of Harold's title cards: "Now then, everybody hold on tight, we're going around a curve." As the song says, there is always something there to remind me.

It’s kind of like a marriage that didn’t work out. Yet you can’t quite quit the person, still want to see him, DO see him and then sort of regret it. I saw Harold's shorts yesterday because I couldn’t get enough of him, this dazzlingly charming, rascally young man who probably had no idea how famous he was going to be (and for how long).  Along with everything else that was extraordinary about him, he was absolutely gorgeous.

At the same time, I felt like my heart was caving in.

Well, can’t I just enjoy his films and forget about the novel? Does the word “no” mean anything to you? The novel is my love letter, not just to Harold but to his times. Most silent comedies got buried: they rotted from neglect, burst into flames or were just thrown away. Was that OK, had they had their few minutes on-screen and in history? Were they even relevant any more, did anybody care?  

Why should we care? Those little flickers of captured magic will never happen again.  They cannot happen again because those times are gone, that style of comedy, that style of living and breathing and being, is long gone, and this is the only moving record we will ever have. And we will never have Harold again, because that kind of genius does not happen twice.

Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Blogger's Post-post. Though I decided not to change or update this piece, written several years ago, there WAS a development about a year later: Harold got published, or I did, or, at least, The Glass Character did. Though it was a thrill for me to be in print again (I do have two other novels, dear readers, that you can still snag on Amazon if you really want them), I was to find out the hard way that publishing had changed in the few years I had been away: it got harder, a LOT harder to make a go of it. Sales weren't great, and unfortunately, in this age of likes and views and clickbait, the numbers are everything.

I get depressed about this sometimes, yes I do, but I have no regrets about my Harold journey. After much discouragement, I decided to keep up my Harold Facebook page, in part due to the sheer volume of material I collected about him over five years or so. It would be nice to share it with people who love Harold. So it ain't over yet. I still harbour this dream. . . every novelist has it, so please don't look at me that way! I want some Hollywood producer to see the light on this thing, and make it into a big-box movie.

What frustrates me is that I know such a thing is possible, in that I believe the potential is there - the quality is there. What would I be doing wasting my time writing junk? But it's a million light years away because I have no "connections". I'm a good writer, but a lousy hustler. So the book kind of went the way of my other two novels. 

Nobody warns incipient writers about this - that the writing is the easy part - and even getting a publisher, relative to the rest of it, is easy too. What's hard, and absolutely indispensible in the industry, is "making it", and that is ALL about numbers and nothing else.

But you know, people, you can still buy my novel! Just click on the link (above) to my Amazon Author Page. It's all there - all three of my novels, in fact. The flip side of the Darwinian ruthlessness of the internet is that nothing ever quite goes away. It just goes on sale. On