Harold Lloyd

Never Weaken, 1921, Fred C. Newmeyer (Foto: Cinémathèque suisse)

December 25, 2015 to January 7, 2016

 

Long recognized as the third giant among the great silent film comedians, Harold Lloyd was held in higher favor with the audiences during his heyday than Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His screen persona, a young man with horn-rimmed glasses, not only served as an inspiration for Superman's alter ego Clark Kent, but epitomized the United States’ self-image in an industrial boom era, as the nation underwent a rapid transformation from a rural into an urban society.
 
Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) embodied the all-American boy, often as an insecure country bumpkin rising above himself through a series of flawlessly conceived, cadenced gags. His take on the American dream – a hard worker heading towards the top with inexhaustible energy and unshakable optimism – was a feat masses identified with. "Chaplin and Keaton lived poetically in worlds of their own creation, while Lloyd lived, thrillingly but unmistakably, in a world the audience recognized as its own," writes Dave Kehr.
 
That world was defined during Lloyd's prime period, in masterful features such as Safety Last! (1923). In this hair-raising thrill comedy (a subgenre more or less invented by Lloyd), the rise to success is visualized by a low-level employee appointed to climb the façade of a department store skyscraper for marketing purposes. The famous image from the finale furioso, Lloyd hanging from the rebellious hands of a giant clock high above the streets of the city, figures as a cinematic icon of modernity. At the same time, it is the ultimate implementation of an idea Lloyd had been revising and perfecting throughout his life: in contrast to the "born" comedians, Keaton and Chaplin, he was an actor who had gained his virtuosity through painstaking efforts.
 
Harold Lloyd may have been less suited for the cult of genius (possibly explaining why he remains comparatively underappreciated today), but this aspect also brings forth a singular kind of authenticity in his persona: He worked his way up just as much as his film characters did. After spending years in traveling theatre, he entered the realm of cinema in 1912 and, together with Hal Roach, produced countless one-reel comedies that made him famous, but remained overshadowed by Chaplin's Tramp. In 1917, Lloyd created the proverbial "glasses" character (he wore no glasses in real life), but it took a great deal of fine-tuning and a transition to feature format before his talent could fully blossom.
 
In Lloyd's comedies from A Sailor-Made Man (1921) to Speedy (1928), breathtaking gags submit to a classical narrative structure which knows no excess imagery. Be it action (Safety Last!) or romance (Girl Shy, 1924), the otherwise often tattily applied genre ingredients of silent comedy were perfectly integrated in his hands, making his major works of the 1920s paradigms of a great cinematic tradition. Despite his smooth transition to sound film, Lloyd's debonair everything-is-possible attitude suddenly appeared obsolete during the Depression era. Every generation since seems to call for a rediscovery of his work. Looking beyond Lloyd’s timeless ingenuity, our own era might discover that his stories of social mobility are more pertinent than ever.
 
The retrospective is presented in cooperation with the Harold Lloyd Trust (Los Angeles). All screenings will be accompanied by Gerhard Gruber on the piano.