Decades after they died, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin still have armies of fans and remain highly regarded by critics. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Harold Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin's onetime peer. While Lloyd's pictures were blockbuster hits in their time, these days, he's mostly forgotten save for that one, indelible scene from Safety Lastin which he dangles off the face of a giant clock, high above the city streets. It would be hard to guess how often that image has turned up in books about the history of comedy, in documentaries about old-time Hollywood or in commercials for life insurance. That's more of a legacy than most of us leave behind, but it's still far less than Lloyd's talent deserves.
Long before Jackie Chan began doing stunts that could easily cripple a man a third his age or those guys on Jackass started setting one another on fire, Harold Lloyd was risking life and limb to give his audience a few chuckles. Lloyd flourished during Hollywood's lawless days; it was an era before union regulations, when on-set safety was barely considered and directors routinely subjected their stars to actual raging fires and pounding floods. Special effects were so primitive that when guns were fired onscreen, well, guns were fired onscreen. And even against this backdrop, people thought Lloyd was nuts for the stunts he did in his pictures.
While Keaton and Chaplin's best movies both reflect and transcend their eras, Lloyd's are curios featuring dialogue and performances that are sometimes puzzlingly quaint. But make no mistake; even the most jaded modern audiences are won over by Lloyd's brash, exuberant charm, and when one of his action sequences is in full flight, you are very much in the moment; in fact, you are short of breath both from laughing yourself hoarse and from the suspense of wondering how the heck Lloyd will get himself out of this latest mess.
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Girl Shy, screening this week at the Curtis Theatre in Brea, is a splendid introduction to Lloyd's work. The film stars Lloyd as hapless Harold Meadows, a sweet, stuttering, impoverished geekboy who falls hard for a lovely rich girl. The film zips along at a breezy pace, but nothing prepares you for the 20-minute chase toward the end, a spectacular, comic free-for-all that has influenced everything from The Graduate to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World to The Blues Brothers. At one point, Lloyd is in the back of a car with a gun pointed at him, and in a bit of quick thinking and preposterous grace worthy of the early Mickey Mouse, he escapes by grabbing an overhead tree branch, launching himself out of the car and onto the back of a nearby horse, and then galloping away. Your brain is still struggling to process what you've just seen when Lloyd is already tumbling into some whole new breathtaking escapade; that's just how Lloyd's comedy works, so if you have asthma, chronic bronchitis or other constrictive-airway disorders, I'd strongly suggest bringing the inhaler along for this one.
The Internet Movie Database credits Lloyd with 208 films, but few of them are screened much now, and even fewer are available for sale or rent. Girl Shy is one of the more criminally elusive of the bunch, so this show would be a grand thing even if it did not feature a performance by the authentic 1920s 13-piece band, Mora's Modern Rhythmists, as well as live musical accompaniment for the film by Dean Mora. Proceeds go toward research for Parkinson's disease, so you can laugh yourself silly and feel wonderfully self-righteous about doing it. Keaton and Chaplin may have the glory, but attend this show, and Lloyd will have another lifelong fan in you.
Girl Shy screens as part of the first ever Silent Film and Music Gala: A Special Night To Benefit The
Parkinson's & Movement Disorder Foundation at the Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 378-5076; www.pmdf.org/events. Sat., 8 p.m. Advance tickets, $45; at the door, $60; students, $20.