Safety Last

Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock

by Tom Dardis
Viking, 357 pp., $19.75

Harold Lloyd
Harold Lloyd; drawing by David Levine

Harold Lloyd charmingly explored the possibility of simple hopes at a time when technologies of transport and communication, including the cinema itself, were making those hopes especially absurd. His screen figure shared with his audience worries about matters like getting a job, going to college (when this meant crossing lines of social class), and conducting romance according to the rules prevailing in small American towns. The boy-man whose beglassed face could pass abruptly from shy to earnest and who could move across the screen with artful clumsiness or reluctant agility was more popular at the box office than Chaplin or Keaton.

Tom Dardis’s book Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock attempts to characterize the success of Lloyd’s career and his economic if not artistic survival after the arrival of talking pictures. By stressing technique, the “how he did it,” in Lloyd’s life as well as in his movie-making, Dardis subscribes to a mythology that comes into serious question in his subject’s film creations. The character Harold Lamb, in The Freshman, consults books on cheerleading, football, etc., before setting off to college, where he discovers the limitations of a how-to approach (of this particular venture into higher education, more later).

These sentences by Dardis could have been a title in a Lloyd feature:

By the beginning of 1935 Harold was aware that he had lost a great deal of his popularity and that only a miracle could arrest his decline. But he was not going to give up without a fight.

We can imagine a girl’s rousing pep talk, some hesitant tries in the right direction, then a hair-raising predicament calling forth bursts of energy and luck.

No career is like this, but Lloyd’s may have come close. The youngster from several small towns in Nebraska got into theater and then movies through much persistence, hard work, and occasional hunger. There must have been times of considerable self-doubt—among the most affecting scenes in Lloyd’s films are those when he confesses cowardice and helplessness.

Whatever the connection between events in his life and these sympathy-eliciting film scenes, Lloyd and his team were able to move cinematically from such scenes to sequences that caricatured success and fulfillment. While Dardis discusses how Lloyd’s comedies brought him worldly success, he does not consider the implications of the fact that success was their subject.

Nor does he bother to deal with the aesthetic basis for such comedies. The first audiences for Lumière’s 1895 film of a train pulling into a Paris station (toward the camera) and for Edison’s 1896 film of waves breaking at the seashore (again toward the camera) were astonished. Kevin Brownlow writes that these early responses were “childlike,” and that something similar also occurred in a Rumanian town as late as 1931 when movies were first shown there.1 What astonished was not, of course, the subject matter of a…

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