The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia

by Annette M. D'Agostino Lloyd
ISBN: 0786415142

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A Review of: The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia
by Jim Roots

The fact that Harold Lloyd's name is today almost totally unknown to anyone under the age of 80, other than silent comedy fanatics, is nobody's fault so much as Harold's.
Throughout the 1920s, Lloyd (1893-1971) was universally acknowledged as one of "The Three Geniuses of Silent Comedy," and for most of those years his films out-grossed those of the other two geniuses, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Even today the image (from Safety Last, 1923) of Harold clinging desperately from a tower clock high above the streets remains an instantly recognizable icon for the entirety of silent filmdom.
He made 196 films between 1913 and 1947, only 7 of them talkies. Then he locked them up in the underground vault on his 16-acre estate. Except for two compilations he created in 1962 and 1966, that's pretty much the last the public saw of them in his lifetime. An explosion and fire in the vault in 1943 destroyed the only known prints of most of Lloyd's earliest films. That's another reason why he's largely unknown today.
Chaplin's and Keaton's films gained generations of new fans through constant exposure on TV up until the 1980s, and on video/DVD thereafter. Lloyd refused to allow TV to butcher his films. In the 30 years since his death, his heirs have chosen to extend this ban to new media as well. They consistently refused to issue his films on video, and for three years have made empty promises to release them on DVD. (A pre-Christmas 2003 message to fans from the Harold Lloyd Trust repeated this same tired promise for 2004. No one is holding their breath in expectation of the promise finally being kept.)
In 1977, Time-Life Films Inc. syndicated chopped-down screenings of Lloyd's best-known films-the only time they have been shown on TV. Not coincidentally, almost every Lloyd fan under age 80, including the author of The Harold Lloyd Encyclopedia, discovered him first through this series. In film history, out of sight is definitely out of mind.
Annette D'Agostino Lloyd's book does not start off promisingly. The flyleaf notes that the frontispiece shows "the author's favourite portrait of Harold Lloyd"-an entirely unnecessary bit of self-congratulation. It is followed by three pages of acknowledgments which begin with a quote from her own earlier book on Lloyd, and features 65 uses of first-person pronouns before concluding with a gushing 80-word dedication to Lloyd himself, who has been too dead for 33 years to appreciate it.
In short, we get a strong foreboding that this is going to be nothing more than a fan-girl's love-letter to Harold Lloyd. Heck, she even married a man with the Lloyd surname (albeit no relation to Harold), which she assures us was merely a coincidence but which does give rise to uneasy feelings that there is a psychotic obsession at work here. Then we get into the book proper, and find that, sure enough, she is inherently incapable of uttering a harsh word about anybody and anything with the remotest connection to Harold Lloyd. She is either burbling ecstatically or murmuring neutrally. As a result, the book sketches several misleading impressions.
In common with almost every great practitioner of the Golden Age of Comedy (Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, W.C. Fields, Groucho and Chico Marx, etc.), Lloyd in real life drove his wife to alcoholism and was a serial philanderer. D'Agostino Lloyd just barely admits this fact: in a 1,500-word entry on "Marriage , Lloyd", she spends only 29 words on both of these faults combined.
Harold's only son, Harold Jr., was well-known to have been a major creep whose taste for rough-trade homosexuality and loud verbal abuse alienated him from his father. All D'Agostino Lloyd will say, however, is that he "had a tough life" and was "sweet, gentle, and kind, yet also abusive of alcohol, easily manipulated, and sexually promiscuous, mostly with other men."
William Frawley-the immortal Fred Mertz on "I Love Lucy"-who supported Lloyd in Professor Beware (1938), gets similar treatment. He was a notoriously ugly drunk, violent and profane and one of the most universally loathed men off-screen, but D'Agostino Lloyd only has palpitating admiration for his professional achievements.
Likewise, Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne, is given a shameless suck-up despite the fact that she is the person who is principally responsible for hiding Harold's films from the public for the past 30 years.
D'Agostino Lloyd is so chronically incapable of uttering a negative word, even through the voices of others, that her otherwise very useful entries on Lloyd's individual films include only positive blurbs from contemporary reviews. The most negative one she allows is the mild disappointment that Luke's Crystal Gazer (1916) contains "too much slapstick action." For 1916, the height of wild Keystone Kops slapstick, that is actually a compliment.
True, it would have been difficult to have found hostile reviews simply because nearly all of Lloyd's films are terrifically funny and inventive; he earned his place in the silent-comedy pantheon on merit. Aside from being hilarious, as D'Agostino Lloyd informs us, his importance to movie comedy rests upon the facts that, one, he was a rare silent comedian to use an ordinary appearance on-screen, and two, that he was one of Hollywood's earliest and most vigorous personifications of the American go-getter spirit.
But it is pure myth that he "introduced" the ordinary-looking comedian. The first internationally-popular silent film comic, Max Linder of France, wore almost no makeup and was famous for his dapper dress, quite often wearing a full tux in his movies. The first popular American film comic, John Bunny, likewise wore no makeup and dressed in everyday suits, although he was so alarmingly obese that it often looked like his clothes were about to burst apart. Far from inventing the ordinary-looking comic, Lloyd simply returned that image to prominence on the screen after a few years in which comedians were expected to look grotesque with obviously-false moustaches and ill-fitting, goofy clothes.
As for his American hustler spirit, D'Agostino Lloyd is determinedly oblivious to the fact that this meant the on-screen Lloyd invariably threw himself into selfish and destructive strategies, ruthlessly stomping over other people to achieve his personal goals, which were always materialistic ones, centering on money and woman-as-property. That his strategies made us laugh uproariously, as well as giving us thrills (he was known, much to his own displeasure, as a "thrill comedian"), should not be allowed to blind us to the essentially repulsive nature of his antics.
An encyclopedia on a single topic necessarily involves decisions about what to include and where to place specific information. D'Agostino Lloyd makes some odd choices. Harold Lloyd spent a major part of his apprenticeship as a Chaplin imitator, and has always been aligned with Chaplin and Keaton in the comedy Valhalla, yet there are no entries for either of those "friendly rivals." Instead, we get dubious "theme" entries for "Shoes", "Hair", "Coin Toss", and "Rain".
This can make it really difficult to find specific information. The history-altering vault fire does not get any listing-it isn't even mentioned in the entry on "Fire/Fire Trucks"-nor is it referred to in the entry on "Greenacres" (the name of Lloyd's estate). In fact, you have to go back to the Preface to find it, and even there it doesn't inform us which films were destroyed forever. This treatment hardly does justice to the tremendous importance of the incident.
On the positive side, it is marvellous to learn what a self-taught polymath Lloyd was. A life-long Shriner, he rose to the highest office (Imperial Potentate) and was responsible for the Shriners' program of children's hospitals. An interest in colour theory led him to create a school of painting called "Imaginettes" and "Fantascapes", sort of like Impressionism without any actual subject. He pioneered stereo photography and took over 300,000 3-D photos, a hefty portion of them nudes (which will be published in book-form this year). Taking up microscopy, he discovered the only kind of wasp that kills black-widow spiders.
One of the most intriguing entries is about Harold's death. When his prostate cancer was detected sometime in 1970, he at first responded "in character" by vowing to find some way to beat it. Advised that it was terminal with no hope whatsoever, he then seemingly went entirely against character by giving up completely, going to bed, and dying three weeks later. In truth, though, the reversal of attitude was also "in character", for the on-screen Lloyd could never be allowed to become helpless, decrepit, or unable to get around; he had to remain forever an agile, energetic go-getter.
There can be no doubt this book has been a labour of love. Unfortunately, it needs a solid dose of tough love to make the most of its subject.

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