The golden age of Hollywood comedy - the decade or so between the first world war and the coming of talking pictures - is not just a myth for nostalgics. To see revivals of the classic comedies performed as they were intended - in pristine prints, on the big screen, with live musical accompaniment and in the company of an audience - is to experience a quality of laughter that is all but forgotten today. Once it was commonplace. In its heyday, literally hundreds of comedians and comediennes were employed turning out films as fast as they were able. A lot of their pictures were dire, of course; but the best were astonishing for their quantity, quality and invention.
Tragically, little evidence remains of this generation of laughter-makers: most of the films that should be their memorial simply rotted away in the days when archivists disdained to conserve mere slapstick. Who remembers the films of Charley Chase, Ben Turpin, Fatty Arbuckle, Snub and Daphne Pollard, Fay Tincher, Alice Howell, Larry Semon, Max Davidson and even the moonstruck Harry Langdon?
The only names that have passed into the common culture, more or less, are Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy (though they are best known for their later work in sound films) and Harold Lloyd. Even Lloyd, as Kevin Brownlow writes in his introduction to this book, is often just "a name people automatically added to Chaplin's and Keaton's without knowing why".
When he is remembered, it is generally for a single, iconic image: the man on the clock. Dizzyingly high over a roaring city street, a young man with terror on his face clings to the hands of a clock on the side of the skyscraper. The clock is evidently disintegrating piece by piece. The odd thing is that his spectacles cling firmly in place on his nose. Though every other comedian emulated the style, Lloyd was supremely known for his thrill comedies. His great features characteristically ended with a sequence of acute suspense - a predicament on some high place, a hare-brained drive through busy city streets, a fight to near-death, a vital football game.
A significant difference between Lloyd and his comic peers is that Chaplin and Keaton arrived in film with their comic equipment fully developed and finely honed by years in vaudeville. Lloyd set out as a stagestruck Nebraska boy, who had done his apprenticeship playing melodrama in touring stock companies. He crept into movies as a five-dollar-a-day extra, and struggled into production with an ambitious fellow extra, Hal Roach. Lloyd practised the business of comedy in scores of execrable shorts, with characters called Willie Work and Lonesome Luke that shamelessly copied Chaplin, the superstar comic of the day. Roach once said that Lloyd was not really a comedian at all, but "the best actor I ever saw acting being a comedian".
Lloyd understood the fundamental point that the best comedy is rooted in character, and his breakthrough came when he discovered what he was always to call the Glass Character. After 1917, he never appeared on screen without the lensless horn-rim glasses that were his trademark and the core of his comedy. The glasses contribute to a further distinction between Lloyd and the rest: where their screen characters - Chaplin's fastidious tramp and Keaton's stone-faced man-machine - were extraordinary, his was everyday ordinary. With his buttoned jacket and well-brushed shoes, he was just the nerd-next-door - though the nerd that turns, always in the end overcoming his timidity and cowardice to triumph over odds and enemies and win the girl.
The character was at once universal (which of us has not to overcome his cowardice?) and exemplified the 1920s' American dream, the go-getter who beats all the odds to make good. Lloyd appealed enormously to his generation: he was more prolific than all the other comedians, and his films made big money (as Jeffrey Vance diligently reminds us, giving cost and gross for every feature). Indeed, perhaps he chimed too well with the spirit of that moment. Although he successfully made the transition to sound, the films he made after the Great Depression no longer seemed to be so much in tune with the public: the dream of the go-getter had evaporated.
Vance's text gives a tidy survey of the career, and Lloyd's granddaughter, Suzanne - who was brought up by Harold and his wife, Mildred, when her mother (their daughter) fell sick- gives a vivid picture of the private man. Like the Glass Character, he was irrepressible. When the films no longer worked for him, his energy and ingenuity found new outlets in Masonic good works, in painting and in stereoscopic photography (he made an estimated 200,000 pictures). He seems all in all to have been a thoroughly nice man, although an incorrigibly philandering husband.
Invaluable for an understanding of Lloyd is the transcript of a question-and-answer session he gave for the American Film Institute in 1969, a year or so before his death. For all the simplicity and directness of the approach, Lloyd's analysis of his craft is delicate and acute, and definitively explains the most notable quality of these classic comedies - that they were, by any standards, superlative pieces of film craft, in structure, execution, editing and photography. Nothing was unconsidered or left to chance. "All the comics of that day," he says, "Buster, Charlie, all of them - were students of comedy." In the Q and A, Lloyd corrects someone who calls silent films "physical comedy". No, he says, it was "visual comedy". The great part of the laughter came not just from how they looked and what they did, but what they were thinking and feeling, as it was caught on film.
Lloyd's perfectionism happily extended to the still photographs produced for publicity, and this book - and its readers - are the beneficiaries. These images are, says the photographic editor Manoah Bowman, "perfectly composed and fluid scenes that somehow represent not only the action of the films but the personalities and motivations of the characters". In themselves, many of them can raise a laugh. They are visible proof that it was a golden age.
David Robinson is director, Pordenone Silent Film Festival, and the author of the recently updated Chaplin : His Life and Art .
Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian
Author - Jeffrey Vance and Suzanne Lloyd
ISBN - 0 8109 1674 6
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £30.00
Pages - 240