Stalking Harold Lloyd
In July of 1969, at the age of 16, I divided my time between two very different worlds. The first was that of my generation, the colorful hippie Zeitgeist that I happily embraced. But I was also caught up in a black-and-white time gone by. In those days Seattle, where I live, offered silent movies at a handful of repertory cinemas or sometimes in private screenings through film clubs. A dedicated film buff, I saw as many silents as I could, and my favorites were always the comedies.
Seattle was host that summer to the 1969 Shrine convention, normally something the hippie side of me would have disdained. But then I read in the paper that the man being honored as Shriner of the Year was Harold Lloyd, of Beverly Hills, California.
Lloyd, of course, is considered one of the three comic geniuses of silent films, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton being the other two. Chaplin is immortal, and Keaton remains recognizable to most people, but oddly, Harold Lloyd has been largely forgotten. That’s a shame. In the 1920s he was a huge star, known for his “everyman” comic persona and distinctive horn-rimmed glasses. His pictures often featured stunts —at once both hilarious and thrilling —in which he hung perilously off the edges of tall buildings or raced wildly in mad chases through city streets. His popularity was such that exhibitor polls taken in 1927 and 1928 showed him to be one of the top box-office attractions in America.
In 1969 Buster Keaton was dead, and Chaplin was in exile in Europe, but Harold Lloyd was alive and well and visiting my town. I quickly rounded up two girlfriends for moral support and took them downtown to get Harold Lloyd’s autograph. He was staying at what was then Seattle’s poshest stopping place, the Olympic Hotel.
In our bell-bottomed jeans and tiedyed shirts, we walked boldly up to the woman at the reception desk and asked her for Harold Lloyd’s room. She wasn’t much older than we were, and I don’t think she had a clue who Harold Lloyd was. She indifferently gave us his suite number, and we took the elevator upstairs. As we stepped off, we saw two older men standing in the hallway. One said to the other, “Okay, Harold, see ya later,” and walked off down the corridor. We were left with a heavy, balding man in bifocals.
“Are you Harold Lloyd?” I managed to croak.
“Yes, I am,” he said with a friendly smile. Inwardly I thought there was some mistake. This could not possibly be the silent film star I had admired. He wasn’t thin and winsome in a straw hat and blazer; he was fat and old and wore a brown suit that made him look like an insurance salesman. (Lloyd was 76 at the time. The following year he received a cancer diagnosis; he died at the age of 77, in March of 1971.)
“Could we please have your autograph?” I asked in a daze. I didn’t, after all, really want this fellow’s autograph. I wanted Harold Lloyd’s autograph.
“Sure,” he said. “Do you have any paper?”
We did not. So he kindly invited us into his suite while he looked for something to write on. In the meantime we chatted for a few minutes about his films. He was warm and likable and didn’t seem at all put off by our very long hair and notably unconventional appearance or the fact that we hadn’t brains enough to bring along an autograph book.
He finally found some hotel stationery and picked up a pen. As he began to write, I realized with a start that this man really was Harold Lloyd. I could tell because he held the pen in a strange way. He had to. Both the thumb and index finger of his right hand were missing.
I’d read quite a bit about Lloyd’s career, and one of the things I’d learned was that in 1919 he’d posed for some publicity photos holding a “fake” bomb. The bomb went off in his hand. He was nearly blinded, couldn’t work for months, and in all his later movies, including such masterpieces as Safety Last (1923) and The Freshman (1925), he wore a special leather glove to hide the injury. What’s even more remarkable is that Lloyd, who did most of his own sensational stunt work, did those films with only one good hand.
In his 1983 biography, Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock , Tom Dardis says that for the rest of his life Lloyd went out of his way to hide his injury: “Socially, he always wore gloves to conceal his deformity.” But he wore no glove the day I met him.
“Hi Jane,” he wrote on the piece of paper he had found. “Lots of luck. Harold Lloyd.” He also drew his trademark symbol of horn-rimmed glasses. Then he signed autographs for my two friends and afterward politely showed us the way back down the hall to the elevators.
I still have Harold Lloyd’s autograph and I always smile whenever I look at it. He’d probably written that phrase lots of luck to thousands of fans over the years, but I also think—after getting a load of me and my equally counterculture companions —that he figured I was the kind of girl who was going to need it.