This is the first part of a two-part interview with Harold Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, in honor of Bryn Mawr Film Institute's screening of Safety Last! on June 25.
Film comedian extraordinaire Harold Lloyd returned to the Cannes Film Festival this year, thanks to a brand-new digital restoration of his hit 1923 comedy, Safety Last!
“The 2k restoration is just gorgeous. I’ve seen it on the big screen, and once you’ve seen it on the huge screen, it’s amazing. It’s incredible,” his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, enthuses.
Bryn Mawr Film Institute is among the theaters featuring the new restoration of Safety Last! The film, which just celebrated its 90th anniversary, will also be released on Blu-Ray through The Criterion Collection. Even as she was preparing to leave for Cannes later that day, Suzanne generously gave her time for a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles.
It’s not the first time she’s accompanied the silent film legend to Cannes. “He actually took me to Cannes when he won in 1962. I went with my grandmother, my mother, and his assistant, Roy Brooks.” Harold lit the festival on fire that year when he presented a compilation of some of his best work, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, and was honored with a plaque that read “To the Grand Prince of Cinema.”
The King of Daredevil Comedy
Harold Lloyd started in Hollywood by sneaking onto the Universal lot, where he struck up a friendship with producer Hal Roach. For Roach’s production company, Harold created a variety of characters reminiscent of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. His one-reel comedies soon became two-reelers after he developed his own “glasses” character, an everyman romantic lead and boy-next-door that audiences loved.
Safety Last!, one of the “thrill comedies” Harold made, was a turning point in his career and contains one of the most iconic images in silent cinema: Harold dangling from the face of a giant clock high over the street below. In the 1923 feature, Harold plays a hard-working everyman who ends up climbing the side of a skyscraper as part of a marketing stunt in order to make his girlfriend think he’s a successful businessman.
The film was a big hit, and Harold Lloyd was named the “King of Daredevil Comedy.” Following on its heels were Lloyd's features The Freshman (1925), The Kid Brother (1927), and Speedy (1928), making him the number one box office star two years in a row in the late ‘20s.
In Safety Last!, Harold plays a department store salesclerk pretending to make it big in order to impress his girlfriend.
Being Funny is a Serious Business
Suzanne’s grandmother, Mildred, played Harold’s love interest in Safety Last! The onscreen couple was courting during production.
“Right before the movie was released, my grandparents got married,” Suzanne states. “Well, it was the last film that she ever made with him, because he wasn’t going to play with his married wife in movies. He didn’t think it was that funny—he was supposed to be the bachelor chasing the girl. That’s when Jobyna Ralston stepped in to be his leading lady. But my grandparents had really good chemistry together and [my grandmother] adored him. They were married for 49 years. She was nineteen when she started with him; she was with him when he had his bomb accident.”
Mildred Davis and Harold Lloyd in a promotional image for A Sailor Made Man (1921). They starred in several films together before they were married in 1923.
At a promotional photo shoot at Hal Roach’s studio in 1919, Harold was supposed to light a cigarette with a fake prop bomb. The bomb went off in Harold’s hand, blinding him and blowing off part of his right hand. His career was said to be over.
“Who put the bomb there?” Suzanne queries. “He was working on his third film with my grandmother, Mildred, and this happens. It was absolutely killing.”
Douglas Fairbanks, Harold’s best friend, came to visit Harold and offered him a place at his studio, United Artists. But Harold refused: “You have your comedian.” (Charlie Chaplin was one of the studio founders.) Douglas asked him what he was going to do, and Harold replied, “I’m going to wait and see and think positive. They think my eyes can come back.”
Lo and behold, in a few months, sight had returned in both eyes and his face had started to heal.
Suzanne reflects, “He was just a driven person and he was so enthusiastic about life and such a positive thinker—Why Worry? is actually the name of one of his films. He believed that you have to be positive and things will work out.”
He didn’t let the accident slow him down, and he kept his scars from the public.
Harold Lloyd was known for performing his own stunts in "thrill comedies".
His films grossed more than Charlie Chaplin's or Buster Keaton's.
“They had several movies ready for release,” Suzanne explains. “He said, ‘I don’t want people to come in there and look for my handicap or disability. Just hold the movies back. Instead of putting the movies out every two weeks, hold them back so I’m not dropped from the screen.’” Roach had a thin flesh-colored glove made in New York to cover the injury. Harold went back to work nine months later, but wore the glove in every movie he made after the accident.
“People really didn’t know in the public,” Suzanne continues. “He learned to do autographs with his left hand. He’d keep his hand in his pocket at premieres and things. He’d shake with his left hand; if he really knew you and you were a good friend of his, he’d give you his right hand. He was always athletic and always played handball. He played handball even with his bad hand, to build up strength.”
So when Harold was dangling from the clock face in Safety Last!, only a few years later, he was performing the daredevil stunt with only one complete hand.
A Modern Visionary
By the time he retired from the screen in 1947, Harold Lloyd had made 200 films. But retirement didn’t mean “rest” for the go-getter. He devoted himself to the Shriner Hospitals for Children and, in the 1960s, he was named President and Chairman of the Board. Always fascinated by photography, he was an avid 3-D photographer and an early proponent of the idea of using 3-D in films. His photography library contains nearly 300,000 stereo slides he made from 1947 to 1971.
“He was just a real visionary and a pioneer,” Suzanne says. “He was controlling about his films to the point where he didn’t want them put on television where an editor would hack them up for commercials [and ruin the pacing]. A number of generations lost out because he didn’t want to do that. In some ways, Harold is behind in recognition compared to Chaplin or Keaton.
“But if you play a Harold Lloyd film, he‘s more modern,” she continues. “He’s not in a character. He’s your Tom Hanks, your Jimmy Stewart, your Jack Lemmon, maybe your Jason Bateman. He’s your guy on the street. He’s always smiling, he’s always moving. He’s always getting into trouble and getting out of trouble… He set the template for romantic comedy.”
The 90th anniversary digital restoration of Safety Last! will be showing at Bryn Mawr Film Institute on Tuesday, June 25.
Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who will be in touch!