There’s a scene in the 1923 comedy Safety Last! when Harold Lloyd’s department store clerk is fighting off dozens of women clamoring to buy bolts of cloth. Panting, his suit reduced to rags, Lloyd—referred to in the movie as “Lloyd” or simply “the boy”—is then chewed out by his supervisor for taking off his jacket at work.
The scene is ridiculously dated—women buying cloth, clerks in suit jackets, department stores patrolled by floorwalkers—yet the scene is still hilarious. It’s a mix of physical comedy and light satire—one of many in the film that ultimately climaxes in a harrowing sequence involving Lloyd actually dangling from an actual clock 12 stories above a crowded street.
Still largely unknown as a silent star today, Lloyd and his trademark round glasses and unkempt hair appeared in more than 200 movies—more than fellow screen legends Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin combined. And he always played pretty much the same character—an optimistic American go-getter who teetered between genius and fool.
He was that way in real life. In 1919, while mugging for the camera with what he thought was a fake bomb, Lloyd blew off his right thumb and index finger. He was blind for several months. He took to wearing a prosthetic hand when he recovered, but still insisted on doing his own stunts, like the famous clock scene in Safety Last!, which remains to this day as one of the most amazing scenes ever put on the big screen.
Watching Safety Last! again in preparation for this article, I was struck at how different silent movies are than today’s cinema fare. More so even than subtitled foreign films, silent pictures force the audience to pay constant attention to the screen.
Dialogue appears on cards, of course, but there are no sound effects either—the accompanying organ music is all you hear. Avert your gaze for just a few moments, and who knows where you’ll be.
Then again, audiences were used to that back then. And Lloyd knew those audiences his whole life.
Born in Nebraska on April 20, 1893, Lloyd’s first jobs as a boy were theater usher and stagehand. Finding non-speaking bit roles in Los Angeles, Lloyd eventually met fellow-extra Hal Roach, on his way to starting his own production company.
Teaming up, they produced a series of shorts involving a guy named “Loansome Luke,” who was nothing more than a blatant rip-off of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character. Tiring of it, Lloyd and Roach eventually set up a new character, though both later took credit for the glasses that movie audiences loved so much.
Lloyd made his last movie, Mad Wednesday, in 1947. Wealthy and living in a 16-acre Beverly Hills estate with his wife Mildred Davis (his co-star from Safety Last!), Lloyd then devoted pretty much the rest of his life—he died in 1971—to his favorite hobby: photographing nude women.
He was reportedly a popular shooter. According to a Dec. 4, 2005 Sunday Times story, Lloyd managed to get Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe to pose for him, as well as various other pin-ups from the time.
“His models were usually paid $25 per session for posing nude,” reported the Sunday Times. “[P]ubic hair was masked by fans, feathers or flowers, in case the film processors at Kodak decided to exercise their own form of censorship.”
Very shrewd, indeed. Then again, Lloyd got pretty shrewd in his later years. His decision to refuse television broadcast rights to his movies because he thought constant commercial breaks ruined the storyline’s pacing seemed nonsensical at the time, but ended up resulting in a whole new generation of fans who know his films only as they were meant to be seen. That kind of appreciation is as close to timeless as a movie star can get.
Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, Girl Shy, Safety Last! and Why Worry? screen for free—FREE!—at 10 p.m. June 15-18 respectively at the SandDance Theater on Wailea Beach. MTW