Harold Lloyd was just as much a comic genius as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but not as well-known. Ironically, it’s at least partly because he was such an astute businessman. He retained the copyrights to most of his movies, and asked a price too high for ‘50s television, which was showing many things that were free for the asking. But interest in him was renewed in the ‘60s when … well, I’ll get to that.
This movie is one of his best. Chaplin was the same character in many of his films: the Little Tramp. Keaton didn’t have a character as such, but he usually wore the same hat and there was that Great Stone Face business. He never smiled. Lloyd, on the other hand, was the All-American Boy, though often naïve and always accident-prone. He specialized in stunts that looked dangerous as hell, as in Safety Last, from which came the iconic shot of him hanging off of a clock high on the side of a building. The Freshman doesn’t have stunts like that, but there is plenty of physical comedy, and much more that concerns the poor schmuck freshman’s getting into exquisitely embarrassing situations, and sometimes but not always getting out of them. This ranks up there with the best of the silent comedies.
It’s amazing how much these actors worked in the really early days of movies. Lloyd made 27 two-reelers just in 1915, and 33 in 1916, most of them as a largely-forgotten character called Lonesome Luke. Then he made 30 more in 1917, finally getting away from Luke in the middle of that year. Then 33 more in 1918 and 38 in 1919, when he invented his enduring character, known simply as the American Boy. (Trademark: round horn-rimmed glasses.) The pace of movie-making slowed down then as pictures got bigger and longer. When sound came in he made a few. I only saw one of them, his last one, made in 1947 after a 9-year retirement. It was The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (which I saw under the title Mad Wednesday) and it wasn’t very good. He retired again.
I’ve long had a special affection for Harold Lloyd, because I was lucky enough to meet him. In 1962 and ’63 he made two compilation films: Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy, and Funny Side of Life, which consisted of his greatest stunts and funniest bits. He took these films on the road with special showings at film societies and colleges, and they were a big hit, put him back on the historical map. I was a member of the film society (there were only about 100 of us) at Michigan State in 1966, when he screened one of these films (I can’t be sure which it was) at a local theater in East Lansing. Then he met with the film society. Only about 20 of us came, so it was fairly intimate. He was 73 at the time, looked and acted hale and hearty, with an easy laugh and smile. I had had no idea who he was, but was stunned by the stunts in the movie, at the same time as I was laughing myself sick. We film fans questioned him for about two hours. Somebody had done some research, as she asked about his Christmas tree. Apparently he had a huge one, and kept it up year round. He passed around a picture of it, and it was about 20 feet tall, in a huge room, and was more ornament than tree. You could hardly see any branches.
That huge room was in the huge mansion on the huge Harold Lloyd estate. He was rich. I mean, rich rich, serious wealth. He had invested wisely, unlike so many other stars. And he had built one of the largest estates in Beverly Hills: Greenacres. The mansion had 44 rooms and 26 bathrooms. The estate had 12 distinct gardens, 12 fountains, the largest swimming pool in California, a 9-hole golf course and—get this—a 900-foot canoe stream stocked with trout, including a 100-foot waterfall. He also built a mini-estate for his daughter, child-sized, where Shirley Temple sometimes came over to play.
And that’s my Harold Lloyd story. I’m so glad I got to shake his hand.