Harold Lloyd is my sister's favourite silent comedian. He's one of the big three silent comedy stars, along with Chaplin and Keaton, and in fact he made more films and more money than the other two put together. He worked hard and by all accounts was a nice guy. That's his screen persona, too, or at least the one he's best known for (the glasses-wearing "Boy"). Lloyd's adorable. He's got almost none of the cruelty you often see in silent slapstick comedy. He's just a happy, innocent boy with a big smile on his face. He'll flirt like crazy with any woman he meets, for instance, but this never feels like womanising. You get the impression that he's been bowled over by every single one of them, that he thinks they're all wonderful and that he's fallen in love on the spot.
We're in the Mildred Davis era, incidentally, when the girl in all Harold Lloyd films was played by Mildred Davis. Lloyd married her in 1923 and they remained happily married until her death in 1969.
I'm fond of Lloyd. I shouldn't think it's possible not to be. However surprisingly few of his short films are available on DVD. His 1920s work is pretty well represented, but most of those are feature films. (He switched to features in 1921.) However if you want to watch his 1913-1919 stuff, you'll be wanting YouTube. There are a few 1919 shorts that crop up regularly on DVD collections, but that's about it. I've certainly never seen anything with his Lonesome Luke character (a Chaplin rip-off who looks kind of annoying in still photos) who he played before putting on some glasses and inventing The Boy.
There are six films here:
1. HIS ROYAL SLYNESS
This is the only one I couldn't find on DVD and had to watch on YouTube. That'll be because it's not funny. I quite liked it, mind you, but it's so far from comedy that to me it feels like a different genre. It's a straight film that happens to star Harold Lloyd and have a few brief sight gags in it. Our hero becomes prince of a tinpot country that uses the Cyrillic alphabet and has mighty moustaches. (This was only three years after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, so the contemporary audience presumably still saw Russian imagery as "silly monarchy with lots of vodka" rather than "totalitarian communist dictatorship". Admittedly there's also a revolution, but still. This turned my brain inside-out a bit.)
There's lots of comedic potential in the setting. It's just that to me the film doesn't feel like a comedy. Lloyd swaps places with his lookalike Prince of Razzamataz, which is done so seamlessly that I'm still wondering how Hal Roach achieved it. The two Lloyds shake hands! Did he have a twin brother or something? (Answer: sort of. His name's Gaylord Lloyd and they weren't twins, but they did look similar.) Lloyd goes to the country of Thermosa, gives speeches and commits a bit of casual slapstick violence on people he doesn't like. He also flirts with the queen (supposedly his mother) and falls in love with Princess Florelle (supposedly his sister). Neither of those women seems to have a problem with this. Lloyd's a handsome man. Admittedly he's not the real prince, but even so one starts to see how the Russian royal family ended up having congenital problems like haemophilia.
There's also a plot point so daft that it almost breaks a silent comedy short. The revolutionaries point a cannon at the palace, load it and say "the first person to fire that cannon will be president!" They then go away. Lloyd comes along and... okay, you've guessed it. This might not be the best way of choosing your head of state, although it does have the virtue of simplicity.
Imagine a lightweight 25-minute version of the Prisoner of Zenda. It has some good sight gags. (I liked the one with a horse and cart.) It was remade in 1927 as 'Long Fliv the King' with Charley Chase, co-starring Oliver Hardy. I enjoyed it, but I can see why it's been overlooked for DVD release.
2. HAUNTED SPOOKS
The set-up's too complicated. You could base a feature film on all that. The start of the film's choking on exposition and intertitles, with lots of characters and a plot that you can't follow just from the visuals. (It even has dialogue scenes, with proper acting opportunities for the guest cast!) However all this settles down once Lloyd's got into the swing of things.
He's lovely, as always, but he's also trying repeatedly to kill himself. "I've lost one of the only girls I've ever loved."
It's a bit messy, to be honest. I didn't realise at first that the ghosts are the Evil Uncle who's trying to drive Mildred Davis out of her own house. The film also has superstitious, easily terrified black people. (There are quite a lot of black actors in these 1920 Lloyd short comedies, but this is the only time I felt uncomfortable watching them.) It's sort of okay. It has some gags you'll see again in these films: articles of clothing that seem to be walking on their own (which I found funny) and Lloyd's hair standing on end (so badly done that it's almost funny through sheer bravado). It gave me one good laugh, anyway, and it feels less dark than what Keaton's capable of with similar material.
3. AN EASTERN WESTERNER
It's a parody Western. Again there's witty dialogue, which is unexpected in a silent film.
This is a perfect setting for Lloyd's character, who's at his best in dangerous situations. I don't just mean stunts, by the way. He was famous for those too, though, for instance pioneering special effects to simulate being on the edge of tall buildings. This kind of danger, though, is about scary people. Lloyd's strolling into a den of killers who could eat him alive at any moment. It's particularly unnerving to see him in that kind of situation, since he's such a ray of innocent sunshine and so bad at realising that he's digging himself ever deeper. Keaton could handle himself. Chaplin's a scruffy little vagabond with the survival abilities of a cockroach. Even Laurel and Hardy wouldn't be this alarming, perhaps because their misadventures have a different kind of cartoonishness.
Natsuki laughed at the carriage-chasing. Me, I enjoyed the combination of Lloyd's charming optimism and the action-packed violence of the pro gamblers, gangs and gunslingers.
4. HIGH AND DIZZY
I didn't like the first-reel sequence of Lloyd as an unsuccessful doctor trying to pretend that he's chock-a-block with patients. The jokes aren't bad, but he's being stupid in an annoying way. That would have worked better for me had it been combined with the following (unrelated) bit, which involves someone getting Lloyd blind drunk. He behaves appallingly in some of those scenes too, e.g. opening and throwing away other people's letters, but at least alcohol gives him an excuse.
We do however see a drunken Lloyd many stories above the ground. That was memorable. The trapdoor business was quite good too, while I laughed out loud at Mildred Davis's "yes" to "will you marry me?" She's known him for about thirty seconds. They're perfect for each other!
5. GET OUT AND GET UNDER, aka. MY BEAUTIFUL AUTOMOBILE
Probably the best of these six silent films, with An Eastern Westerner in second place. Admittedly it does reveal that its first few minutes were all a dream, but it's still full of vivid comedy situations that are full of movement and dynamic visual storytelling. (It's also the only one of the six that's kinetic enough to be a Buster Keaton film, with some highly inadvisable driving and a nifty sequence with a suitcase. As the title suggests, it's about a car. Lloyd loves his car. This film made Natsuki overexcited and had him charging himself around the house afterwards with inadvisable energy levels.)
The gentlemanly swearing gag is funny. Mind you, there is a moment where Lloyd visibly misses the banana peel he's supposedly slipped on.
6. NUMBER, PLEASE?
It's a good solid short, but I'm not wild about Lloyd trying to dispose of Mildred Davis's stolen purse. Yes, I know he hasn't realised. He's not doing it deliberately. Nonetheless I still didn't really enjoy that section, which is unfortunate because it's quite a long one.
It's an enjoyable selection of films. They have quite a few problems, dodgy bits and misjudgements, but you don't really care because Lloyd carries it all. He's so likeable that you want to watch him.
If silent comedians were Doctor Who, then Harold Lloyd would for me be Peter Davison. They have very different kinds of energy, but they're both innocent, terribly nice young men with unshakeable (and misplaced) faith in a dangerous world. Look at the sequence of Lloyd trying to get to a phone in 'High and Dizzy', for instance. He's his own worst enemy. He keeps being courteous to a fault. There's even a bit where he stops to help a woman pick up her parcels, like the 5th Doctor chasing Omega in Arc of Infinity.
It's good stuff. I have his 1921 shorts too and I'll be watching those with Natsuki. I'm considering a jaunt through his earlier work too, but they're on YouTube and I'm starting to think that watching bad-quality copies of silent films is a terrible idea. I'm still curious about Lonesome Luke, though.