During the silent era, three comedians reigned supreme: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. While Charlie Chaplin has certainly come to be known as an American icon of comedy, and an undisputed genius at his craft, he was actually British. His omission in this paper is a deliberate choice, and not a slight on his talent. Instead, this paper focuses on Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, who represented distinctly American sensibilities in their films. They both engaged in high-risk comedy with extraordinary skill, but their backgrounds, comedic approaches, and personalities were miles apart. Some biographical information about the men is included to put their careers in context, and the climaxes of Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923) and Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923) are analyzed to compare and contrast these two great comedians and their respective styles.
Of the three great comedians of American film, Charlie Chaplin has never been ignored. It took a few decades after his peak years in the 1920s for people to rediscover Buster Keaton and truly appreciate him for his authorship. Known as “The Great Stone Face,” Keaton aptly lives up to this moniker in Our Hospitality, a rather brilliant and lovely film. The story riffs on the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud, with Keaton playing Willie McKay, whose family has long been entangled in a feud with the Canfield’s. Apparently, “Buster changed the names to Canfield and McKay as a whimsical precaution in case there were any vengeful survivors of the original clans” (Dardis 97).
With a rope still tied around his body from the previous shenanigans, he floats along in the river, his head barely poking out above the surface. His love interest, Virginia Canfield (played by his real wife at the time, Natalie Talmadge), sits dejectedly on the shore and sees him go by at the same time the audience does. The sight of his stone face bobbing along is something to behold. In a rather progressive move for 1923, she gets into a boat in order to save him. For people who criticize the silent era for turning women into mere props for the men, look at this sequence. This delicate little flower does not hesitate for one second. She simply hops into a boat and follows her beloved. Chalk one up for feminism.
With the handy rope, Keaton ties himself to a random log, spluttering some more from the water and its force, and then drifts away attached to the log, almost calmly in fact. His face truly is a masterpiece; he manages to look practically serene throughout this life-threatening ordeal, and it actually was life-threatening. Keaton and the log reach the end of their journey as the river drops off into a huge waterfall, Niagara-like in the context of the film, complete with deadly, jagged rocks at the bottom.
In one of the most breathtaking stunts in cinematic history, Keaton manages to hang on to the rope attached to the log and then swings himself broadly, Tarzan style, to catch her in mid-fall.
For the final rescue of Virginia Canfield over the falls, that was not actually filmed on location, but in Hollywood, although it hardly matters. “The forgery goes unnoticed. To catch the floating girl (a dummy, of course) took flawless timing; twice Keaton missed and ended hanging inverted under the falls. He got so waterlogged a doctor had to drain his ears and nose. On the third try, Buster nailed the stunt” (McPherson 135). This sequence does not feel dated at all; in fact, “it is shining action. Few films can show a moment as thrilling, and it all but stands alone as one that was done without fakery by the star himself” (Blesh 230). His comedic technique is flawless. It is never that his face is totally emotionless; it is just that he manages to play everything, even the most ridiculous scenarios, completely straight and unflinching. Beneath the stone mask, the impenetrable bust of a clown, the viewer can see a multitude of emotions brewing to create a rich and complex performance. The Keaton recipe is equal parts poignant and hilarious.
He was very private throughout his life and was often tormented. Even though he was exceptionally close with his family, his father physically abused him quite a bit in the act while he was young. He married Natalie Talmadge, but suffered from alcoholism and emotional dependency issues: “As an adult, Buster saw much of the world the way a child might; the direct unabashed vision of his best films is the vision of a marvelous child” (Dardis 63). But perhaps it is exactly his personal history and this childlike excitement for filmmaking that makes him such an extraordinary artist and a true auteur.
In comic technique, Harold Lloyd is practically the opposite of Buster Keaton, even though they both had a propensity for dangerous stunts. They were clearly adrenaline junkies. Actually, Lloyd is known as the “daredevil” comedian, which is certainly obvious from the climax of Safety Last!. Even if people are not familiar with Harold Lloyd, and tragically many people are not, since he is by far the most forgotten of these comedic giants, most people know the image of a bespectacled man hanging off a clock on the side of a skyscraper. In fact, it is one of the most iconic moments in film history. To briefly set it up, Lloyd plays the main character, an average Joe, who wants to make money in order to impress his girlfriend, so he arranges for a man to climb up the building of the store he works at in order to gain publicity for the company and thus extra money. When the climber shows up, he is being pursued by a cop, so he tells Lloyd to start out and then he will take over once he reaches the next floor. It is a genius concept.
Once on the ledge, he nervously turns to the raucous crowd and tips his hat quickly before resuming his horrified, shocked expression. Everything that can possibly go wrong does on his way up. Birds land on him, very Hitchcock-like, so he must fight them off. Someone drops a net out of a window on top of him. Painters thrust a wooden beam out of one of the windows. A man’s bulldog barks at him, and while hanging precariously, the snobby man chastises Lloyd because the dog might fall out. Murphy ’s Law has nothing on this sequence. Every floor, the climber tells him just to go up one more until he can shake the cop, which of course never happens. This just heightens (forgive the pun) the suspense. His love interest (played by his real wife Mildred Davis) arrives and watches the spectacle with terror. Every time he pauses, the crowd urges him on, and he twitches a smile at them and then gulps to try and brace himself. His constant back and forth with all of these emotions is really amazing to watch, and just so funny.
Once he finally seems safe on a window, the climber actually pushes the window up, which causes Lloyd to reach for the giant clock next to him. He does so and grabs the hand on the clock, dangling off of it, causing the face of the clock to pull free from the building.
And cinematic history was made.
“Compared to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd has been treated shabbily by history” (Vance 10). Even though he is not credited as the director on his films like Chaplin and Keaton, he was very much involved with every step of the process. His films are truly his own. “Almost as deadly to his reputation has been the determined effort of well-meaning admirers to characterize him as “The King of Daredevil Comedy”…The label has fostered a largely distorted idea of Lloyd’s pictures – climbing stunts occur in only three of his eighteen features” (Dardis, Lloyd xix). Regardless, it is his glasses persona that he is most famous for: “With the Glass Character, Harold came back to his roots and found his soul. The genius of the character was not that it was extraordinary, but that it was so ordinary, so normal…In short, Harold found success by playing himself, and his optimism and relentless pursuit delighted audiences…” (Vance 29). Indeed, that is Harold Lloyd’s true appeal – his utter accessibility and boyish, good-natured charm.
Just because his life was not plagued by the sort of tragedy that most artists endure does not mean he knew any less about human emotion and connecting to an audience. Lloyd is the embodiment of the American Dream, and that is why he was so appealing back in his time, and why it is even more upsetting that he is not remembered like he should be today.
All in all, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are two of the most influential American comics and artists of all time, and they proved it specifically with Our Hospitality and Safety Last!. Even though they both utilized different techniques, they are equally effective in their own ways. They came from totally different backgrounds, proving that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. But that does not give them enough credit; they made it because they are master craftsmen of comedy. “Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Buster Keaton was the deadly seriousness with which he undertook the art of being funny. Unlike other famous comedians, Buster was convinced that humor is a very serious business. His work was always the greatest single passion of his life” (Dardis, Keaton xi). In the case of Harold Lloyd, he “relied on luck and hard work to become one of the greatest cinema artists of his era. Harold was a genius because he worked at it, and a success because he never gave up” (Vance 16). People will never stop watching their films, so even though they are gone, the laughter will never die.