One day in the 1960s I was walking around Times Square. The theater I was passing had audio speakers set on the sidewalk. I walk by and I’m assaulted by peals of laughter: commanding, immediate. Huh? I read the sign. Pedestrians are assured that the laughter they hear is issuing right then, live, from that theater. I look up. There’s a larger than life mock-up of a geek in glasses hanging from the hand of a giant clock.
“Harold Lloyd,” reads the marquee.
I’m in grad school, I live on borrowed money, and doles, charity. I don’t have any time to spare either. But I’m arrested: Harold Lloyd? Looks like old-fashioned comedy, silent, the best. I cough a couple of dollars over to the ticket booth, in I go, swept into the ocean of laughter inside.
The Harold Lloyd DVD Jan and I finished watching last night had seven Harold Lloyd features on it. Jan said she had never heard me laugh so hard after the first one. If I didn’t laugh quite as much in the rest it was from exhaustion, not from it being less funny. I grew up with Chaplin the way I grew up with Bambi and Snow White: more so. Chaplin was everywhere in my young life. My father’s friend watched Chaplin reels on a home projector. Hanging in the Village in college the Cafe Figaro showed Chaplin’s The Cure all day every day, screened right on the wall. I knew Keaton, the Marx Brothers: WC Fields … I thought I knew all the great silent stars.
Chaplin churned out reels like no one ever had, but once he made features he slowed down: one every five years. Chaplin made ten million for his films, astonishing (and vastly more from his stock in the phone company!) But Harold Lloyd made films and kept making films. Lloyd’s films earned half again more: fifteen million!!!
What wealth we had in the 1920s! Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd. And they kept right on through the 1930s. But the wealth began before the ’20s: Griffith!
And before then: Méliès!