See S. Lloyd and J. Vance, Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian (2002).
Harold Lloyd ranks alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as one of the most popular and influential film comedians of the silent film era. Lloyd made nearly 200 comedy films, both silent and "talkies," between 1914 and 1947. He is best known for his "Glasses Character", a resourceful, success-seeking go-getter who was perfectly in tune with 1920s era America.
His films frequently contained "thrill sequences" of extended chase scenes and daredevil physical feats, for which he is best remembered today. Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the street in Safety Last! is one of the most enduring images in all of cinema. Lloyd did many of these dangerous stunts himself, despite having injured himself in 1919 during the filming of Haunted Spooks when an accident with a prop bomb resulted in the loss of the thumb and index finger of his right hand (the injury was disguised on film with the use of a special prosthetic glove, though the glove often did not go by unnoticed).
Although Lloyd's individual films were not as commercially successful as Charlie Chaplin's on average, he was far more prolific (releasing twelve feature films in the 1920s while Chaplin released just three), and they made more money overall ($15.7 million to Chaplin's $10.5 million).
Lloyd was born in Burchard, Nebraska to James Darsie Lloyd and Elizabeth Fraser; his paternal great-grandparents were from Wales. In 1912, his father J. Darsie "Foxy" Lloyd was awarded the then-massive sum of $6000 in a personal injury judgment (although this was split evenly between Lloyd and his lawyer) and, reportedly on the toss of a coin ("Heads is New York or Nashville or where I decide, tails is San Diego"), he and Harold moved West.
Harold had acted in theater since boyhood, and started acting in one-reel film comedies shortly after moving to California. Lloyd soon began working with Thomas Edison's motion picture company, and eventually formed a partnership with fellow struggling actor and director Hal Roach, who had formed his own studio in 1913. The hard-working Lloyd became the most successful of Roach's comic actors between 1915 and 1919.
Lloyd hired Bebe Daniels as a supporting actress in 1914; the two of them were involved romantically and were known as "The Boy" and "The Girl." In 1919, she left Lloyd because of greater dramatic aspirations. Lloyd replaced Daniels with Mildred Davis in 1919, who the more he watched (from a movie Hal Roach told him to check out) the more he was eager to get her. Lloyd's first reaction in seeing her was that "she looked like a big French doll!"
Lloyd's early film characters, such as "Lonesome Luke," were by his own admission a frenetic imitation of Chaplin.. From 1915 to 1917, Lloyd and Roach created more than 60 one-reeler comedies in the spirit of Chaplin's early comedies.
By 1918, Lloyd and Roach had begun to develop his character beyond an imitation of his contemporaries. Harold Lloyd would move away from tragicomic personas, and portray an everyman with unwavering confidence and optimism. The "Glasses Character" (always named "Harold" in the silent films) was a much more mature comedy character with greater potential for sympathy and emotional depth, and was easy for audiences of the time to identify with. The Glasses Character is said to have been created after Roach suggested that Harold was too handsome to do comedy, without some sort of disguise; previously, he had worn a fake mustache as the Chaplinesque "Lonesome Luke". Unlike most silent comedy personas, "Harold" was never typecasted to a social class, but he was always striving for success and recognition. Within the first few years of the character's debut, he had portrayed social ranks ranging from a starving vagrant in From Hand to Mouth to a wealthy socialite in Captain Kidd's Kids.
Beginning in 1921, Roach and Lloyd moved from shorts to feature length comedies. These included the acclaimed Grandma's Boy, which (along with Chaplin's The Kid) pioneered the combination of complex character development and film comedy, the sensational Safety Last!, which cemented Lloyd's stardom, and Why Worry?.
Lloyd and Roach parted ways in 1924, and Lloyd became the independent producer of his own films. These included his most accomplished mature features Girl Shy, The Freshman, The Kid Brother, and Speedy, his final silent film. Welcome Danger was originally a silent film but Lloyd decided late in the production to remake it with dialogue. All of these films were enormously successful and profitable, and Lloyd would eventually become the highest paid film performer of the 1920s. They were also highly influential and still find many fans among modern audiences, a testament to the originality and film-making skill of Lloyd and his collaborators. Like other great silent comics, Lloyd was the driving creative force in his films, particularly the feature-length films . From this success he became one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in early Hollywood.
In 1924, Lloyd formed his own independent film production company, the Harold Lloyd Film Corporation, with his films distributed by Pathé and later Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox. Lloyd was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Lloyd made the transition to sound in 1929 with Welcome Danger (the original silent version had already been completed, with different supporting actors). Released a few weeks before the start of the Great Depression, it was a huge financial success, with audiences eager to hear Lloyd's voice on film. Lloyd's rate of film releases, however, which had been one or two a year in the 1920s, slowed to about one every two years until 1938.
The films released during this period were: Feet First, with a similar scenario to Safety Last which found him clinging to a skyscraper at the climax; Movie Crazy with Constance Cummings; The Cat's-Paw, which was a dark political comedy and a big departure for Lloyd; and The Milky Way, which was Lloyd's only attempt at the then-fashionable genre of the screwball comedy.
To this point the films had been personally produced by Lloyd's own company. Unfortunately, his go-getting screen character was now out of touch with Great Depression movie audiences of the 1930s. As the length of time between his film releases increased, his popularity declined, as did the fortunes of his production company. His final film of the decade, Professor Beware, was made by the Paramount staff, with Lloyd functioning only as actor and partial financier.
On March 23, 1937, Lloyd sold the land of his studio Harold Lloyd Motion Picture Company to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The location is now the site of the Los Angeles California Temple.
Lloyd produced a few comedies for RKO Radio Pictures in the early 1940s but otherwise retired from the screen until 1947. He returned for an additional starring appearance in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, an ill-fated homage to Lloyd's career directed by Preston Sturges and financed by Howard Hughes. This film had the inspired idea of following Harold's Jazz Age, optimistic character from The Freshman into the Great Depression years which followed. Indeed, Diddlebock actually opened with footage from The Freshman (for which Lloyd was paid a royalty of $50,000, matching his actor's fee), and Lloyd was sufficiently youthful-looking to match the older scenes quite well. Lloyd and Sturges had different conceptions of the material, however, and fought frequently during the shoot; Lloyd was particularly concerned that while Sturges had spent three to four months on the script of the first third of the film, "the last two thirds of it he wrote in a week or less". The finished film was released briefly in 1947, then shelved by producer Hughes. Hughes issued a recut version of the film in 1951 through RKO under the title Mad Wednesday.. Such was Lloyd's disdain that he sued Howard Hughes, the California Corporation, and RKO for damages to his reputation "as an outstanding motion picture star and personality", eventually accepting a $30,000 settlement.
Lloyd's Beverly Hills home, "Greenacres," was built in 1926–1929, with 44 rooms, 26 bathrooms, 12 fountains, 12 gardens, and a nine hole golf course. The estate left the possession of the Lloyd family in 1975, after a failed attempt to maintain it as a public museum.
The grounds were subsequently subdivided, but the main house remains and is frequently used as a filming location, appearing in films like Westworld and The Loved One. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In October 1944, Lloyd emerged as the director and host of The Old Gold Comedy Theater, an NBC radio anthology series, after Preston Sturges, who had turned the job down, recommended him for it. The show presented half-hour radio adaptations of recently successful film comedies, beginning with Palm Beach Story with Claudette Colbert and Robert Young.
Some saw The Old Gold Comedy Theater as being a lighter version of Lux Radio Theater, and it featured some of the best-known film and radio personalities of the day, including Fred Allen, June Allyson, Lucille Ball, Ralph Bellamy, Linda Darnell, Susan Hayward, Herbert Marshall, Dick Powell, Edward G. Robinson, Jane Wyman, and Alan Young, among others. But the show's half-hour format — which meant the material might have been truncated too severely — and Lloyd's sounding somewhat ill at ease on the air for much of the season (though he spent weeks training himself to speak on radio prior to the show's premiere, and seemed more relaxed toward the end of the series run) may have worked against it.
The Old Gold Comedy Theater ended in June 1945 with an adaptation of Tom, Dick, and Harry, featuring June Allyson and Reginald Gardiner and was not renewed for the following season. Many years later, acetate discs of 29 of the shows were discovered in Lloyd's home, and they now circulate among old-time radio collectors.
Lloyd remained involved in a number of other interests, including civic and charity work. Inspired by having overcome his own serious injuries and burns, he was very active with the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, and eventually rose to that organization's highest office, Imperial Potentate.
He appeared as himself on several television shows during his retirement, first on Ed Sullivan's variety show Toast of the Town June 5, 1949 and again in July 6, 1958. He appeared as the Mystery Guest on What's My Line? in April 26, 1953, and twice on This Is Your Life: on March 10, 1954 for Mack Sennett, and again on December 14, 1955 on his own episode. During both appearances, Lloyd's hand injury can clearly be seen.
Lloyd studied colors, microscopy, and was very involved with photography, including 3D photography and color film experiments. Some of the earliest 2-color Technicolor tests were shot at his Beverly Hills home (These are included as extra material in the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection DVD Box Set). He became known for his nude photographs of models, such as Bettie Page and stripper Dixie Evans, for a number of men's magazines. He also took photos of Marilyn Monroe lounging at his pool in a bathing suit, which were published after their deaths. In 2004, his granddaughter Suzanne produced a book of selections from his photographs, Harold Lloyd's Hollywood Nudes in 3D! (ISBN 1-57912-394-5).
Lloyd also provided encouragement and support for a number of younger actors, such as Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, and particularly Jack Lemmon, whom Harold declared as his own choice to play him in a movie of his life and work.
Lloyd kept copyright control of most of his films and re-released them infrequently after his retirement. Lloyd did not grant cinematic release because in the main most theaters could not accommodate an organist, and Lloyd did not wish his work to be accompanied by a pianist: "I just don't like pictures played with pianos. We never intended them to be played with pianos". Similarly, his features were never shown on television as Lloyd's price was high: "I want $300,000 per picture for two showings. That's a high price, but if I don't get it, I'm not going to show it. They've come close to it, but they haven't come all the way up". As a consequence, his reputation and public recognition suffered in comparison with Chaplin and Keaton, whose work has generally been more available.
Also, Lloyd's film character was so intimately associated with the 1920s era that attempts at revivals in 1940s and 1950s were poorly received, when audiences viewed the 1920s (and silent film in particular) as old-fashioned.
In the early 1960s, Lloyd produced two compilation films, featuring scenes from his old comedies, Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy and The Funny Side of Life. The first film was premiered at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, where Lloyd was feted as a major rediscovery. The renewed interest in Lloyd helped restore his status among film historians. Throughout his later years he screened his films for audiences at special charity and educational events, to great acclaim, and found a particularly receptive audience among college audiences: "Their whole response was tremendous because they didn't miss a gag; anything that was even a little subtle, they got it right away".
Following his death, and after extensive negotiations, most of his feature films were leased to Time-Life Films in 1974. As Tom Dardis confirms: "Time-Life prepared horrendously edited musical-sound-track versions of the silent films, which are intended to be shown on TV at sound speed, and which represent everything that Harold feared would happen to his best films".
Through the efforts of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill and the support of granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd Hayes, the British Thames Silents series re-released some of the feature films in the early 1990s on home video, at corrected projection speeds and with new orchestral scores by Carl Davis. More recently, the remainder of Lloyd's great silent features and many shorts were fully restored, with new orchestral scores by Robert Israel. These are now frequently shown on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable channel. An acclaimed 1990 documentary (Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius) by Brownlow and Gill, which was shown as part of the PBS series American Masters, also created a renewed interest in Lloyd's work in the early 1990s. A DVD Collection of restored versions of most of his feature films (and his more important shorts) was released by New Line Cinema in partnership with the Harold Lloyd Trust in November 2005, along with limited theatrical screenings in New York and other cities in the US, Canada and Europe. Annette Lloyd has also said that if there is a large-enough show of support by fans, a second collection may be released in the future.