The classic Harold Lloyd comedy “Safety Last” is turning 100 years old this year. But with its heavy dollops of action and a superstar’s real-life derring-do, it doesn’t seem a day over 10, even if it does date back to the silent era. The film screens this Sunday as the climax of the Academy Museum’s “Silent Sundays” series, with a live score from a 24-piece orchestra helping heighten the suspense in the ultimate fear-of-heights movie.
Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, will be on hand for the anniversary screening. As the keeper of her granddad’s flame for decades, she has perspective on how “Safety Last” resonates with contemporary audiences, especially an extended final act that has the ‘20s star climbing a skyscraper in downtown L.A. and finally hanging from a wayward clockface, in one of the most iconographic images in all of movie history.
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“Maybe he was the 1920s Tom Cruise,” Suzanne says. “I’ve met Tom Cruise and talked to him about this. He’s a huge Harold fan, and so is [“Mission: Impossible” franchise director] Christopher McQuarrie. Harold always wanted to take things farther,” even if his on-screen persona was all about being ostensibly mild-mannered and even bumbling, before being forced by circumstance to become an action hero, unlike the already jacked-up stars of today. “He really became known for ‘thrill pictures’.”
Sunday’s screening will celebrate another hero: composer Carl Davis, whose contemporary score, written in the 1980s, will be the accompaniment provided by the 24-member orchestra at the Academy’s Geffen Theater. Davis died Aug. 3 in the U.K. at age 86, shocking Suzanne Lloyd, who had worked with him on scores for this and Harold Lloyd films for decades. It’s expected that the orchestra may play a sampling of Davis’ other film music Sunday, in tribute, on top of the composer’s “Safety Last” music.
The screening with a live score is “a very special thing to do and I’m actually thrilled,” Suzanne says, “because Harold was the sixth founding member of the Academy, and his best friend was Doug Fairbanks, who was the president and founder. So I know he’d be very honored. … The best thing is to take Harold out and show him to people that have not seen him or experienced his work, and you see how they smile and have a wonderful time, and they have found a new film friend that touched their heart. … And also, to open the show, we’re going to show 35mm home movies, fooling around with his dogs and playing with the kids, so you’ll see another side of him without his glasses.”
Lloyd has a good grasp on how not just museum-going film buffs but unsuspecting youth can be drawn into her grandfather’s cinematic universe. “I teach Harold’s films to the L.A. school district — the other day it was 6th, 7th and 8th graders,” she says. “I tell them, ‘It’s a guy with glasses and he’s like Harry Potter’s older brother.’ These seventh-grader boys ask me questions like, ‘You really knew him? Did he move around like that?’ After I showed them ‘Speedy,’ these two boys said, ‘Well, we’ve been talking about this and we’ve all decided that we like like the texts Harold sends.’ It took me back for a second. Texts? And I realized, they see the title cards, which are in a square box and they’ve got white writing. and think that he’s texting them. These young kids, they don’t really talk to each other, they just text, so why wouldn’t they think Harold was texting them? Is that hilarious?”
Lloyd sometimes is seen as coming in third in the pecking order of the great silent comedy stars, after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Fair or not, that’s at least partly due to the star having refused to license his films for television before he died in 1971, due to his belief that commercials would interrupt the momentum of his carefully constructed setpieces. His granddaughter did a lot to change that, beginning with a 1989 “American Masters” special called “The Third Genius,” and with eventual DVD and Blu-Ray special editions and boxed sets. This far into the 21st century, Harold Lloyd is much more seen as a roughly equal peer of Keaton’s and Chaplin’s, to the extent that comparisons are apt.
And now, besides having some of her grandfather’s films on HBO Max, Suzanne Lloyd has a deal with the prestige-conferring Criterion Collection and Criterion Channel. That company has four Lloyd films as part of its very select library — including “Safety Last,” naturally, with another, “Girl Shy,” currently in the works for a Criterion edition.
But as most silent enthusiasts will attest, there is nothing like seeing the films with an audience — especially comedies, in which the laughter becomes contagious, and more especially still with action-studded comedies like “Safety Last,” in which audible gasps are being shared as readily as giggles. Factor that in even before the music factor that tends to make each screening that isn’t accompanied by a pre-recorded score unique, whether it’s a lone player on pipe organ or piano or, as at the Academy Museum, an orchestra.
Says K.J. Relth-Miller, the programmer of the Academy’s “Silent Sundays” series, “This is not the first time that the Academy has worked with Suzanne to produce a screening dedicated to the legacy of her family and this great silent physical comedian Harold Lloyd. So when we were looking at the timing for the series, this came to mind because it is the 100th anniversary. Suzanne has also been deeply involved with the museum since before we opened. One of Harold Lloyd’s prop and costume kits is on display in our ‘Stories of Cinema’ gallery that shows various glasses that he wore. He did not wear spectacles in his real life. So actually when you see home movies of Harold Lloyd, he’s initially unrecognizable because he is not wearing those iconic specs. And then we also have his glove that had added fingers in the glove; he unfortunately lost part of his hand during an accident on set, and so he had to wear this glove to make it seem as if he had all five of his fingers. And so of course we have a longstanding and lovely existing relationship with Suzanne, with so many of his papers and photographs at the Margaret Herrick Library. So this just seemed like a natural fit, and we’re really thrilled to be ending the series with a performance of a 24-piece orchestra performing a score by Carl Davis to accompany ‘Safety Last’ in our David Geffen Theater.”
Relth-Miller notes, “We’ve also had other examples of live scoring accompaniment to a film. In fact, the first public screening to honor the opening of the museum on Sept. 30, 2021, was a screening of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with a very special DCP that had the soundtrack removed, so we had a live youth orchestra playing the soundtrack. And we have had other silent film screenings, but this is the first series dedicated to silent film at the museum.” It was inevitable that the Academy Museum would take such an interest, given that, as Relth-Miller points out, “our director and president, Jacqueline Stewart, is the host of ‘Silent Sunday Nights’ on TCM. Her commitment, both scholarly and in terms of just her interests in silent film, will be ongoing throughout her tenure at the museum. This series was really led and shepherded into existence by her. And I know that she’ll be looking to more opportunities to showcase silent film in all of its forms, across multiple genres and international production models, throughout our cinemas and our calendars.” (“Safety Last” was the most populist entry in this particular series, which mostly focused on lesser-known titles from the three-decade heyday of the silent era, including entries from Japan and even Ukraine, with improvised live piano scores.)
Suzanne Lloyd is still gutted by the loss of scorer Carl Davis at the beginning of August. “I’m still having to process it; it was an amazing shock. I was very, very close with Carl and his family. I started working with him 37 years ago… I traveled on the road with him. I did shows with him all the time. We went on tours together. He was really a showman. He composed incredible music, but he loved conducting and he loved putting on a show. He had a dynamic about him that was so giving, and he was so kind. What he gave the world through his music— ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ Paul McCartney’s ‘Liverpool Oratorium,’ and of course all the scores he did for silent films … Besides a score for ‘Safety Last,’ which you’re gonna hear at the academy, he did ‘The Kid Brother,’ ‘The Freshman,’ ‘Speedy,’ ‘High and Dizzy,’ a two-reeler, ‘An Eastern Westerner’… And he also has a score for another feature, ‘Why Worry,’ which, very sadly, we were going to record at the end of August, although we had already performed it publicly without recording it. … What he did for Harold was just amazing, and I was really blessed to know him as a peson.”
Davis had conducted his score for “Safety Last” before, including three times just this year over in Europe, she says. It was just performed June 10 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow. At the Academy Museum screening, it will be, as always planned, in the capable hands of conductor Angel Velez, who will just have to do without the consulting phone call he was going to have with Davis prior to the screening.
Suzanne Lloyd was effectively raised by her grandparents — not just Harold Lloyd, but his wife and Suzanne’s grandmother, Mildred Davis… who happens to be the leading lady in “Safety Last.” She remembers vividly when she first saw the climactic sequence of “Safety Last,” when she attended the premiere of “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy,” a compendium that was assembled of some of his most famous scenes, when she went with the family to its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962.
“I was 7 or 8,” she recalls, “and the press said, ‘Weren’t you just petrified with your grandfather hanging off that building?’ And I said, ‘Well, my hands were sweaty and I was really scared, but I kept turning around and he was was sitting two seats behind me.’ And I thought, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like him, but they say that’s him. He must be gonna be okay at the end of the film.’ I couldn’t put the two of ’em together, because he looked like a businessman in a gray suit, and he didn’t really wear glasses most of the time, just to drive and read and watch television a bit. But it’s so engrossing, and it is scary — but that’s why he made that film and he wanted that reaction out of people. and God love him, he got it.”
Of being raised by Harold, Suzanne says that he was as much of a good guy IRL as fans see on film. “Thank God he did my algebra homework. He taught me how to drive. He taught me how to eat spaghetti properly. He took me all over the world. And thank God he let me get involved with his films at a very young age, as we started doing restorations, whether it was dirty work or not — rewinding nitrate film and cleaning gunk off and relabeling film canisters. The education in life that he gave me has held with me my whole life now, and he was a terrific guy. He really was.”
If it sounds odd that the Academy Museum will have home movies to show that were shot in 35mm on Sunday, she has an explanation for that. “He loved keeping his whole team in the studio together. Who would have 35mm home movies done? Unless you had your own cinematographer sitting in a studio that you were giving a salary, and you’d call up and go, ‘Hey, my daughter Gloria’s having a birthday party. Do you think you’d come over and shoot it?’ He was able to capture that joy, because if you have a studio and you’ve got a camera and a guy sitting on salary, then why not?”
Lloyd is particularly happy to have such a wide library of contemporary scores for Lloyd’s film, from Davis and others, since her grandfather was a music buff.
“When he brought out those composites, ‘World of Comedy’ or ‘Funny Side of Life’ (in the ‘60s), he said, ‘If I’m gonna put my films and reintroduce myself to people, I need the finest musicians and the finest composers I can get.’ And he went to Walter Scharf, who was a huge music composer and conductor, to make brand new music that he first recorded with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for those two films. He said, “Music is so important to these films — it’s the second component.’
“Harold was a huge music buff, huge, with stereo systems and turntables. My grandmother just finally gave up and said, ‘OK, Harold, the living room’s yours, I don’t care.’ (Manufacturers) used to come and test their speakers in his living room. And he’d play it so loud, the gold leaf would shake off the ceiling in pieces and he’d go, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Just pick up those pieces and put ’em in the box over there. Somebody will come and fix the ceiling one day.’ He ended up being on the cover of Audio magazine, where they put all the new reel-to-reels in front of his very famous Christmas tree for their Christmas issue of the magazine. And when he passed away, he must have had 10,000 reel-to-reel tapes and 8,000 records, all categorized in a book. He’d say, ‘Oh, I want Miles Davis’ so-and-so song,’ look it up and go, ‘OK, it’s in row three.’ He’d have a lineup of long tables in between the sofas in the living room long, banquet tables that you put up, with five turntables and every gadget you could have for stereo music. He’d sit up till 3 in the morning, listening to music, whether it was contemporary or classical or show tunes. And, I mean, he took me to see the Beatles. He took me to see the Stones, too.”
Lloyd talks about how Mildred Davis figured into his film career, and subsequently his home life, albeit without much overlap between the two.
“His leading lady, my grandmother, his wife, they were engaged when they were doing ‘Safety Last.’ She had to be talked in to getting on top of that building and leaning over and getting him, and so she had two guys holding down her feet. She was lavished with a lot of gifts to get up on that building, because she’d already done two thrill pictures with him before, ‘High and Dizzy’ and ‘Never Weaken’ — and she hated heights. She wouldn’t fly. Height was not really one of her best things, and remember, he had her out on ledges, sleepwalking, before in other films.
“She was in her third film when he had that accident with his hand, in August 1919. And the interesting thing was, she kept working, stayed at Roach, while it took him eight months to come back to the same scene in the same film that they were shooting, ‘Haunted Spooks.’ At that point they weren’t an item. She was dating Daryl Zanuck and Irving Thalberg. In 1919, Maybelline came to her and she was the first ingenue actress to ever rep a cosmetic line; she did that for years. And then after she made 18 films with Harold, and they got married right after they finished ‘Safety Last,’ on Feb. 10th, 1923, and they went out as a married couple to the premiere on April 1.
“And he kind of said, ‘You’re my wife now, but you can’t really be my leading lady because I’m a romantic comedian who’s playing single, and I can’t play off you because everybody knows I’m married to you.’ So she kind of settled into that and said, ‘OK well, I’ll stop really making films.’ She had my mother, Gloria, basically a year later, and then she came back around and said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I think I wanna go make a couple of films. I’ve been offered some things.’ And he said, ‘OK, if you really want to do that’ — and she made two films on her own, as the leading lady.” Further pregnancies and a couple miscarriages ensued to stand in the way of her pursuing that career too much more. “Then she was offered Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in 1930, with Cary Grant playing the white rabbit, but she ended up getting pregnant with Harold Lloyd Jr. And so after that, with three children at home, she kind of like stopped (again). It was a lot, you know — she had to kind of take care of him too. You live with somebody who is that energetic and brilliant and smart and has his hand in everything… you know, he needs attention, too. She was fine with that, though, and they were married for, oh my God, 48 years.”
Speaking further of Mildred, Suzanne says, “She was very feisty. She had a great attitude. She loved beating him at cards, because he hated it when he lost, and if anybody pulled something on him that he wasn’t in control of and really slipped one up on him, she loved it. She would just burst into tears and laughter. You kind of saw that on film with her, that she was a little spunky. She wasn’t a Mary Pickford type, even though Mary was a really dear friend of hers, Mary was more soft and refined, but Mildred had this different kind of spark in her, and I think that’s why the two of them worked so well together.”
Suzanne believes there is still room for the film fans of today to realize or rediscoer just how great her grandfather’s innovations were.
“With ‘Speedy,’ nobody had ever gone on location to the extent that they took their whole film crew and said, ‘We’re getting on the train and we’re gonna shoot it in New York.’ And he then turned around and got the biggest baseball star, Babe Ruth, and put him in the film as one of his co-stars. When you think about what he did with ‘The Freshman’ — nobody ever made a football movie before. He got such flack, where they said, ‘Nobody’s gonna go see that. Women don’t wanna go to a football game and sit in the theater and watch a football game.’ It’s still in the rankings for the top sports films of all times. How do you hold that record after 98 years? He just knew how to please people and make them be happy and have a good time.
“With cinematography, he was doing things like putting cameras in the manholes in the ground on the street so he can have the horses’ chase over your head. Nobody had thought about doing that, and then when they did (the silent) ‘Ben Hur’ two years later, they went, ‘Oh my God, we gotta do what Harold did in ‘Girl Shy’ with those chases. He was always trying to create different things, like having a dumb waiter go up with the camera crew so he could climb a tree in one take and then fall out of it in one take, and they just go down with him. Or put a track on the football field so the camera could keep going with him instead of being stationary. Besides being an actor, he had that producing side, and he loved cameras. He had a great career in 3D photography and was always like trying to experiment.
“He, in a lot of ways, was very much like the character he portrayed on screen: He had a lot of interest in life and people and what made them tick and what could he do to make things better. He liked to promote people, from writers to directors, saying, ‘Go out and do your own thing. Go and do your own movie.’”
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