Tag Archives: john bengtson

Safety Last! The Life and near-Death of Harold Lloyd

Imagine being one of the biggest film comedians in the business, enjoying immense popularity, while seeing your career head for the stars.

Then visualize yourself waking up the next day to blindness, severe facial burns, a missing thumb and index finger, and the very real possibility that the career you enjoyed hours earlier had disappeared in a fateful instant.

Such was the tragic situation that Harold Lloyd found himself in during late-August, 1919.

Lloyd, silent film’s hilarious “Third Genius,” who stands alongside Chaplin and Keaton in the upper echelon of the medium’s pantomiming funnymen, was in the first week of shooting Haunted Spooks when he posed for a publicity photo with a bomb that he believed to be a fake prop. Seconds after lighting the fuse with a cigarette, the bomb exploded in his hand.


Fate had visited Lloyd before.

Harold Lloyd was born in Nebraska in 1893 and was raised by his father Foxy Lloyd after his parents divorced. Foxy received a large insurance settlement after being run over by an Omaha beer truck in 1912. The two men decided to use the cash to resettle on the beach, letting fate decide which coast they would aim for with a coin toss. The Lloyds moved to L.A., where Harold’s good looks quickly got him work in the flickers.

Harold soon met a struggling young actor and director named Hal Roach, who was in the process of creating his own studio. Lloyd developed comic characters for Roach based on Chaplin’s Little Tramp character and soon became one of the new mogul’s biggest stars.

Lloyd knew that simply mimicking Chaplin could only take his career so far, so he developed a new bespectacled, straw hat-wearing, boy-next-door character who often landed himself in untenable and comically dangerous situations as the result of trying to win the heart of a lady.

His new “everyman” persona was a sensation, and Lloyd’s career was rocketing skywards when his accident appeared to send it crashing back to earth.


For several days, Lloyd’s career and quality of life held by a thread until his sight eventually returned and his burns healed. He entered the decade of the 1920’s by returning to the set of Haunted Spooks with a prosthetic glove concealing his hand injury.

Far from being over, Lloyd’s career was just getting started. He became known as the “daredevil comedian,” famous for his thrill sequences, like the famous human-fly scene in 1923’s Safety Last! where he scales the side of a skyscraper and dangles precariously from the hands of a clock – carrying out his stunts with only eight fingers.

Lloyd went on to marry his leading lady, become the highest paid performer of the 1920’s, and to retire in luxury at his palatial estate in Beverly Hills called “Greenacres,” where he became a world-renowned expert in photography (often employing young starlets like Marilyn Monroe and my friend Dixie Evans as models – Dixie, how are you?).

His accident in 1919 also led him to become the leader of the Shriners, an organization that donates millions to the treatment of children suffering from severe burns.

Harold Lloyd died forty years ago today on March 8, 1971, but his story could have ended decades earlier had he not refused to surrender to Fate, defiantly demanding, “Is this the best you’ve got?”

Fate asked the same question of Harold Lloyd in 1919, and he responded with a resounding “No!” by rising phoenix-like from the tragedy to even greater heights than he had ever scaled before. 

(Look for our friend John Bengtson’s new book Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloydcoming soon from Santa Monica Press. Also, I want to thank Leonard Maltin for his wonderful article on ChaplinFest, which Kimi and I helped host last month in Newhall, California. You can see the post here.)

Accomplishment #8,536

Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, the creators of the "Modern Times" memorial plaque, with film historian Leonard Maltin, at the 2011 SCV ChaplinFest in Newhall, California, on Saturday, February 5, 2011.

When I was 18 years old, I attended a lecture given by John Goddard, the “world’s greatest goal achiever.” I remember being enthralled that day by a film he made about navigating the entire length of the Congo River in Africa. Afterwards, he exhorted all of us in attendance to go home and write down the ten things we most wanted to accomplish in our lives.

I took him up on it, and soon found that ten things weren’t enough. Ten items became twenty, which became fifty, which eventually grew to encompass thousands of things.

Since that day over thirty years ago, I have maintained the list, adding and checking things off almost daily. Thanks to power of writing my goals down, as of today, I have listed 8,536 items on my accomplishment list.

The entry for accomplishment number 8,536 is only three words: Help create ChaplinFest.

That’s it. But I think of these three words as the title of a book, with the thousands of sights, sounds, and memories of the event representing the words inside.

Michael McNevin, Tippi Hedren, Kimi, E.J., and Patrick McClellan at ChaplinFest on Saturday, February 5.

As a way of thanking all of the people who attended our inaugural 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest last Friday and Saturday, I would like to list some of these moments as they appear in my head:

Leonard Maltin and Tippi Hedren mimicking Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in the final scene from Modern Times by walking arm-in-arm down the center of Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce … Seeing Chaplin’s overalls from Modern Times as well as his prop wrenches and oil can … Kimi and I hearing our names on Jack FM during our friend Tami Heidi’s “Jack-tivities,” in which she announced ChaplinFest … the beautiful monument created by the equally wonderful Maria and Charles Sotelo of High Desert Monuments of Hesperia … riding to the actual Modern Times site with Leonard and Alice Maltin … finally meeting author John Bengtson, who I have admired for years … spending time with David Totheroh, who is the grandson of Chaplin’s longtime cameraman, Rollie Totheroh … hanging out with our buddies Chris and Charlie Epting … all the great vendors … the hundreds of hours of hard work put in by volunteers like Ed, Ralph, Brenda, Paul and all the others too numerous to name … the graciousness of Tippi Hedren, and the love she has for her staff at the Shambala Preserve … the bus that serves as a mobile film studio Hugh Munro Neely brought from the Mary Pickford Institute … seeing the very first copies of Steve Bingen’s new book about the MGM backlots … watching Tippi clown for the cameras with our cardboard Charlie Chaplin cutout … the humor of Alice Maltin and the generosity of her husband Leonard … the beautiful proclamations presented to us by the state, county, and city … the amazing Q&A session between Leonard and Tippi on what it was like for her to work with Charlie Chaplin on A Countess From Hong Kong … the dynamic duo of Jim and Pam Elyea talking with David Totheroh about what it was like to work on Chaplin … Tippi’s story about how an elephant at Shambala once ate Sophia Loren’s address book … the donations we received to help pay for the monument … the performances of the great Michael McNevin and Tracy Newman … the laughter coming from members of all generations during our screenings of Modern Times and The Pilgrim … the crowd cracking up when Tippi asked Leonard during the Q&A if he would like to know what it was like for her to work with Chaplin, and Leonard jokingly responding, “No!” … and especially, the camaraderie shared between all of our organizers: Ayesha Saletore, Beth Werling, Rachel Barnes, and my beautiful wife Kimi …

I could go on and on.

If you were unable to attend this weekend, don’t sweat it. Because of the HUGE success of our first event, there WILL be a 2012 ChaplinFest that you can attend!

Put it on your list of things you want to accomplish.

The "Modern Times" monument which we plan to place at the site of the final scene.

To see more ChaplinFest images, click HERE

To make a contribution to help pay for the monument, click HERE

Harold Lloyd and Helter Skelter: The Santa Susana Pass

Harold Lloyd

For over a decade now, film historian John Bengtson has been using his keen investigative eye to find forgotten locations from the greatest films of the silent era’s favorite funny-men. As a huge fan of his previous books about comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, I jumped at the chance to help photograph some locations for his upcoming book on Harold Lloyd, silent comedy’s “third genius.”

That’s how Kimi and I found ourselves over the weekend between Chatsworth and Simi Valley along the Santa Susana Pass hunting down locations from films made over eighty years ago.

Many of the world’s warmest cinematic memories were born along this stretch of highway. Lloyd often performed daredevil stunts for comedic effect along the Southern Pacific Railroad line that passes through the area. Keaton also filmed here at the old Iverson Movie Ranch, where he used the stony landscape masterfully in portraying a caveman for a segment of a film called Three Ages. The pass’ rugged, rock-strewn locations also served as backdrops for literally thousands of Westerns over the years, and are the very image of the Old West in the minds of millions around the world.

Charles Manson

There is a site of another film ranch along Santa Susana Pass, the Spahn Movie Ranch, that also provided its share of movie magic to the world, but is known today for the part it played in one of Los Angeles’ most heinous killing sprees.

The Spahn Ranch site today.

Forty-one years ago today, cult leader Charles Manson ordered four members of his “Family,” as his followers were known, to murder everyone in a house in Benedict Canyon. His drug-fueled motive for the killings was to spark “Helter Skelter,” a race war between blacks and whites. The grisly murders of actress Sharon Tate and five others, along with the butchering of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife the following night in similar fashion, were launched from Spahn Ranch, where the fake family lived in an artificial Western town.

The Family arrived at Spahn Ranch in 1968 and took up residence in shacks that had modeled as a Western set for several films and television shows, including Bonanza. The ranch was owned by 80-year-old George Spahn, who let Manson and his followers live at the site in exchange for sexual favors from the female members of the Family.

The ranch during the days of "Helter Skelter."

A week after the killings, Manson and 25 Family members were rounded-up at the ranch on suspicion of auto theft, but were later released on a technicality. They fled to Death Valley where they were eventually apprehended, and several Family members, including Manson, were tried and convicted for their roles in the murders.

Today, nothing is left of the former film ranch after a wildfire burned every building to the ground a year after the killings.

It’s jarring to think that the same stretch of highway can be the birthplace of such laughter … and such terror.

George Spahn's grave at Newhall's Eternal Valley Cemetery.