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.)