California Oil Museum highlights eclectic star Harold Lloyd
By Peggy Kelly
Published: August 14, 2013
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula Times
A special exhibit dedicated to a comic genius shows that Harold Lloyd, “The King of Daredevil Comedy” didn’t let just celluloid define him. The California Oil Museum exhibit - on display through August 25 - highlights various aspects of Lloyd’s rich life, from film and family to charitable works and photography.
Lloyd was one of the most popular and influential comedians of the silent film era and - due to his high-flying stunts - is called cinema’s “first man in space.” His comedy differed greatly from his contemporaries: Lloyd’s affinity for others and his innate filmmaking ability created art that far outranked those who used character gimmicks to evoke laughter. Lloyd remains a comic genius well ahead of his time by the camera techniques he used and the characters he portrayed, always reflecting the modern guy striving for success.
Lloyd made nearly 200 films from 1914-1947, in 1917 hiding his startling good looks behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and conveying a screen persona of a man not nearly as attractive. Lloyd created a new character for comedy, an “everyman” whose only nod to on-screen shtick was his trademark glasses.
In real life Lloyd had diverse interests - from photography and developing new techniques for producing photos to Freemasonry, being the first actor to become Imperial Potentate within the Shrine of North America. He was awarded a special Oscar, built Greenacres - a grand estate whose main house later was donated to the state, and raised his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd Hayes, the keeper of the family flame and head of the corporation that still oversees Lloyd’s works and image.
Hayes provided the family mementoes featured in the exhibit, including photos both professional and personal, caricatures, film posters, his signature horn-rimmed glasses, telegrams, and awards including an Oscar (Lloyd received the special Academy Award in 1953 for being a “master comedian and good citizen”) and accolades noting his philanthropic efforts. There is even a documentary on a continuous loop that draws visitors to seats before a small screen.
One family photo shows the marriage of Suzanne’s parents, Gloria Lloyd and William Guasti, and museum director Jeanne Orcutt is quick to point out that her aunt Mary Alice Orcutt Henderson of Santa Paula was a flower girl, reflecting that the family ties between the Lloyd and Orcutt families. The families still keep in touch, and “I just thought it would be fun to have an exhibit for the Oil Museum,” said Suzanne, a resident of Brentwood, “something unusual” from the museum’s usual fare.
Her grandfather was a dynamo both on and off the screen: “He was ahead of the pack when it came to physical comedy, he owned a studio, owned the rights to his films from 1924 on.... He was really the father of romantic comedy, the template,” who showed a rare business sense in the early days of film.
Lloyd’s devotion to what he created carried him through a successful revival decades later with his artistic standards intact, unlike others whose works were decimated, diced and sliced for early television broadcasting. Lloyd, noted Suzanne, was the only artist from the silent era who resisted the lure of easy TV money.
Instead Lloyd later produced “Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy,” a compilation film featuring scenes from his old comedies. The film premiered at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival where Lloyd was feted as a major rediscovery and a special homage was presented to him, a humbling experience for the native of Burchard, Nebraska.
And a man who overcame insurmountable odds: In 1919 Lloyd held a round, black prop bomb, lighting a cigarette with the lit fuse as he posed for a publicity photo... and it exploded in his hand. Lloyd was blinded and he lost much of his right hand.
Doctors told him he would never see again and Lloyd’s career was believed over, but the man who in film never gave up did not in real life. His sight returned and a glove was crafted to hide his handicap from his public. Lloyd, an acrobat who always did his own stunts, wore the glove in every movie he made after the accident to avoid upsetting moviegoers.
In 1949, Lloyd made the cover of TIME Magazine as the Imperial Potentate of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the highest-ranking position and one he took seriously. In a year he crisscrossed the nation, giving speeches for over 700,000 Shriners. The last 20 years of Lloyd’s life were spent working tirelessly for the 22 Shriner Hospitals for Children. In 1960s he was named president and chairman of the Board.
In between he made time to be an early pioneer of 3-D, and was a noted - and prolific - photographer. Lloyd was the fifth film star to immortalize his hand and footprints in the pavement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and in the 1990s - decades after his 1971 death - Lloyd’s bespectacled face appeared on a U.S postage stamp.
Following his death Lloyd’s films were packaged for VHS, a disaster of scoring and editing that subsequently was reversed through current releases that showcase Lloyd and his talents in the best possible way - his way.
Suzanne said there has been a “resurgence” of interest in her grandfather: his website has received more than 500,000 “hits” and she tours the world showing his films and speaking about Lloyd, who in “real life” was nicknamed Speedy, the title character of one of his famous films.
“Speedy” is one of Suzanne’s favorite films.
“I also love ‘Kid Brother,’ but ‘Safety Last’” with Lloyd dangling from a clock face over downtown Los Angeles - one of famous images of silent film - Suzanne finds to be “the epitome of a thrill picture.” That famed image of Lloyd in “Safety Last” is now being recreated for the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters.
Lloyd was a director, producer, writer and studio owner, but Suzanne remembers him particularly for being “a happy guy all the time.... The funny thing is when I was a child I thought he was a photographer and,” due his Shriner involvement, “ran hospitals.”
Following the July 12 museum reception “Safety Last” was screened by the Santa Paula Cinema Society hosted by founder Mitch Stone. The film drew a crowd to Universalist Unitarian Church, where, noted Suzanne, “my great-grandmother was baptized! I also had a lovely relationship with my grandmother,” Mildred Davis, a stunning blonde who ended her career shortly after she married Lloyd.
Suzanne enjoys visiting with her distant cousins who live in Santa Paula, descendents of W.W. Orcutt and his wife Mary Logan Orcutt. Santa Paula’s past is rooted in its rich soil, used as a growing agent or as the holder of the Black Gold still being tapped. Lloyd’s world relied on his tapping his own rich imagination for make-believe. Of the two families, Suzanne said, “We have oil, ag and movies all tangled up in a Hollywood way.”