Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius

Recently, it was announced that Cinesite would start making feature animated films based on Harold Lloyd’s silent film character.  The whole purpose of this blog and my book is to teach animators about the art of physical comedy as practiced by the masters.  Harold Lloyd was not as naturally talented as Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, but he made up for that by hard work.  He once said:

All the comedians of my day, had to be students of comedy. You studied comedy. It just didn’t happen, believe me.

To enlighten young animators about Harold Lloyd, here are YouTube videos for the entire PBS American Masters program about Harold.








My reading – A History of the Hal Roach Studios


I recently finished reading A History of the Hal Roach Studios written by Richard Lewis Ward.  Hal Roach, for those who don’t know, was a motion picture producer who operated a studio from the silent era to the dawn of television.  He was one of the most successful producers of comedy ever.  His actors included Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  It was his idea to put Laurel and Hardy together, and he created the Our Gang/Little Rascals series.

This isn’t really a book review.  The book was what I expected it to be, which is a history of the studio and it’s operation.  It’s about show business, not about art or comedy.  I find show business to be an interesting topic, but many people would not.  I wouldn’t want to bore anyone with details, but I recall some interesting bits.

Hal Roach met Harold Lloyd when they were both in a holding room waiting for work acting as extras for movies. At the time Hal told Lloyd his plans to become a film maker, and to hire Lloyd. Harold Lloyd was his only money making star for a long time.

He had Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy on separate contracts.  And their renewal dates were never in sync.   This made it very difficult for L & H to break away to another studio or out on their own.   Stan Laurel was the creative energy in the partnership and If Laurel started to walk, Roach immediately planned work for Hardy without Laurel.  Roach attempted to partner Hardy with Harry Langdon , but the results were a failure.  Stan Laurel didn’t get anywhere on his own, and returned to the studio.

The last item is a bit of trivia, but I found it interesting.  As children in The Little Rascals started to grow too old for their parts, plans were made to replace them.  The new player would join the gang for a few pictures before the previous one was retired.  That way the gang was a fluid group, and the audience didn’t notice a sudden change in the line up.   The technique avoided the sort of situation the Three Stooges had when Curly dropped out and we were given a succession of replacements.

Hal Roach had a combination of good business sense, and good luck.  Obviously he had many successes, but the book was more likely to give numbers on how much money was lost on which productions.  Several times the studio came close to ruin.  I guess financial losses are more dramatic.  Reading it leaves me wondering how they stayed in business at all.  The hits must have outnumbered the flops, though.  Obviously it is a stressful way to make a living, and it’s good to recognize how difficult it is to be a successful producer.

Eventually Hal Roach let his son Hal Roach Jr. buy out the company and try to make it in television production. He did poorly, and wasn’t able to pay off the debt to his father. Hal Roach Jr. died at 52 years old. Hal Roach Sr. lived to a hundred.

Here is the first part of a two part interview with Mr. Roach.

Starting from the end? Safety Last

Ahh, early Hollywood, where filmmakers were just figuring out how to do things.  Where masterpieces could  be spun out in any way the director saw fit.  Previously I posted about how Buster Keaton would often build his stories beginning-end-middle.  Now I discovered this quote from Harold Lloyd.  It’s from an essay titled “The Serious Business of Being Funny”.

About using scripts.  In Safety Last, probably one of our most popular films, we did the final scenes of that clock climb first.  We didn’t know what we were going to have for the beginning of the film.  We hadn’t made up the opening.  After we found that we had, in our opinion, a very, very good thrill sequence, something that was going to be popular and bring in a few shekels, we went back and figured out what we would do for a beginning and worked on up.  We tried out the same thing in The Freshman.

In The Freshman we tried to shoot the football sequence first – it’s the best sequence, naturally – and we tried to do it first just as we had done the clock climb first in Safety Last.  We went out to the Rose Bowl where we did a great deal of the picture, and we worked for about a week and a half, but it didn’t come off.  It didn’t come off because we didn’t know the character at that time – we didn’t understand him well enough, and we were off with the wrong kind of material.  So we went back and did that story from the beginning, and the football game was shot at the last.

I can imagine conceiving a film this way.  Having a flash of an image or sequence that is so powerful, you could build a story around it.  For animation, that actually sounds quite acceptable.  But to actually start shooting that scene with no idea what came before, that would be considered crazy these days.

Here is one more significant quote from the same essay:

Look, all the comedians of my day had to be students of comedy.  You studied comedy, it just didn’t happen, believe me.

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