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post #1 of 2 Old 05-27-08, 03:29 PM Thread Starter
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Richard W. Haines
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Harold Lloyd Three Volume DVD review

Probably the first question many of you have is...who was Harold Lloyd? There's really no reason you should be familiar with him since while he was alive he carefully guarded his features and shorts and rarely allowed them to be screened. After he died in 1971 his estate was controlled by his grand daughter, Suzanne Lloyd, who also gave very limited access to them compared to other silent comedians whose
movies could be easily booked.

I saw most of Lloyd's films in a spectacular festival at the 8th Street Playhouse in NYC in 1981 called "The Silent Clowns" which was based on the superb book by Walter Kerr. They played what appeared to be original camera negative nitrate prints from film collectors (including Kerr's personal prints) with live organ music. All three major silent picture comedians were represented including features and shorts by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Keaton was certainly the most surreal
and ingenous. I thought Chaplin's Mutual shorts were the funniest picture he made but I wasn't crazy about his features which tended to be very maudelin and dated. Lloyd was the most likeable and his films had the greatest number of laughs. He was the easiest comedian to identify with since he seemed like an ordinary person put into extraordinary circumstances. I always thought that Chaplin's homeless tramp was borderline grotesque. Keaton's persona was fascinating to watch but too other worldly (like Mr. Bean) to identify with.

Lloyd, like Chaplin, was one of the few actors to actively preserve his output. After he retired in the forties, he purchased every nitrate negative of his features that still existed and stored them in a series of vaults in his mansion called "Greenacres". Contrary to myth, most silent films did not just decompose. They were junked
by the distributors and labs since they were considered obsolete and not commercially viable for re-issue. Fortunately, Lloyd and Chaplin thought otherwise
and saved as much as they could, retreiving the materials from the labs before
they were disposed of.

Lloyd career encompassed three characters. The first two were Willie Work and Lonesome Luke. They were blatant Chaplin imitations and not particularly
good. His third character was the one that caught on. Referred to as the 'glasses' character, Lloyd put on round spectacles (that had no lenses), a straw hat and split this role into two personas. The first was the young and ambitious 'go getter' who would do anything to succeed and win the girl. The second was an idle rich loafer who fell into incredible situations and redeemed himself by the end of the story. Curiously both of these 'glasses' characters looked the same. They just acted
different. Unfortunately, there was a nitrate fire in 1943 that destroyed much of the Willy Work and Lonesome Luke negatives. When the stock begins to decompose,
it can spontaneously explode. All of the glasses features and shorts survived which
is what he became famous and weathly for. Nitrate was a strange and mysterious film stock. No one knew how to preserve it back then. In general, the colder and dryer, the longer it lasted. The original nitrate negative of "The Great Train Robbery" from the turn of the century still exists. Yet the nitrate negative of Capra's "Lost Horizon" decomposed in only 30 years. In 1948, Kodak offered tri-acetate safety stock to replace the dangerous and volatile nitrate. Lloyd had every piece of film that survived re-copied onto this stock. What that encompassed was to make a fine grain B&W white master directly from the original nitrate negative. So in that sense, his films were 'preserved'. However, they were not restored which is another matter. In 1955, the Technicolor company developed a 'wet gate'
printer that immersed the negative in a liquid that filled in the scratches and dust. Lloyd's films were all transferred prior to that technology so the fine grain masters and duplicate negatives made from them for re-issue contain a lot of scratches and dirt printed into the tri-acetate masters. Remember that there was no duplicate
stock in the silent era. Every print was made directly from the camera negative
which really wore it out. Recently, Chaplin's "City Lights" and "Modern Times" were fully restored and look brand new without any visual defects. The same should be
done with Lloyd's films, if not all of them then at least the notable ones.

Both safety and original nitrate materials were used for all three Volumes of the DVD collection. While they are advertised as 'remastered', 'restored' and 'rescored', the second claim is inaccurate. None of these films were restored. All of them have decent contrast and look like black and white prints rather than dupes of prints which are unwatchable in my opinion. Some of the later features look near mint but many of the shorts have a lot of scratches and wear. I hope that when they are released in high definition some day they do a real digital clean up of the image to make it look brand new like the Chaplin movies. Another problem is fluctuating contrast which was the first stage of nitrate deterioration. The image gets brighter
and darker throughout each shot. They also have a digital program to correct this. It's very expensive but since these are among the few silent features and shorts to be derived from the camera negative they are worth restoring for real in the future.

I don't want to suggest that the images on these volumes are poor. They look quite good for eighty year old movies but the bar has been risen for what is possible in the digital medium so you might be occasionally disappointed with the artifacts contained in some of the pictures since it's so easy to get rid of them now.

In general, all of Lloyd's silent features and shorts are very funny. Laugh out loud funny. Great gags and premises. His character tends to grow on you as you watch film after film. As producer Hal Roach noted in interviews, Lloyd himself wasn't all that funny. He looks very ordinary. But he works so hard at getting laughs and was such a terrific acrobat (he did most of his own stunts) that you can't help but chuckle. To get into these films I would recommend watching the features in the
following order: "Why Worry" (the idle rich glasses character gets involved with a South American revolution which might have inspired Woody
Allen's "Bananas"); "Saftey Last" (the go getter glasses character tries to climb the side of the building as a stunt and gets stuck on the clock which is one
of the famous images of the era), "For Heaven's Sake" (one of the funniest climaxes where he tries to get a bunch of drunks together to attend his wedding) and "A Sailor Made Man" (his first feature where he somehow ends up in a chase in a Shiek's harem). The rest of the features are variations of these themes. I was never that fond of "The Freshman" which some consider his best movie but it has
a fair share of laughs. The shorts are even funnier since they have tighter editing and the gags come quicker. The stunts are really awesome. Lloyd was able to jump over a person riding a bicycle and hang from the sides of moving streetcars and buildings. Very dangerous stuff and he was known as a 'stunt comedian'. No CGE fakery back then. The guy is really doing these things. What makes if more incredible is that he was missing the thumb and forefinger on his right had due to an accident in 1919. He was in the middle of making "Haunted Spooks" when he lost them. He wore a special glove that had fake fingers for the rest of his career. In that short he has his real hand sometimes and the fake one other times. If you didn't know about the accident, you wouldn't be aware of this injury since he hid it so well.

I know many of you might be turned off to silent films in general and considering the dismal quality and presentations over the years, I couldn't blame you. However, give these discs a shot. While they still have some scratches and wear at times, most look more than acceptable and they are really funny. Just as funny as any sound comedy I've seen from the thirties. You'll also be surprised how innovative Lloyd was with special effects and the camera. Almost as good as Keaton. You never know when an odd ball angle will be used or an elaborate crane or dolly shot for a gag. There's even an unexpected animated sequence that opens one of the shorts. Lots of surprises, especially if you're used to Chaplin's primitive 'aim and shoot' style of cinematography. Lloyd really understood the medium. His chase scenes are so outrageous and dangerous you'll be amazed he survived them.
The musical scores by Robert Israel are good but somewhat repetitive. He created
a general theme for Lloyd which is used over and over. There's an occasional sound
effect but they aren't consistently used.

Also included on the discs are his early sound features. While he made the transition to talkies, they aren't that good as movies. Some are remakes of his silent films and Lloyd's voice sounds a bit weak. Very low key and soft spoken which doesn't fit his go getter character. It's not what I imagined it would sound like when I watched his silent comedies. I imagined an energetic voice to match his stunts along the lines of a young Jack Lemmon. Also, the addition of grunts and groans as he does the same stunts in sound movies were distracting and took away from the humor. He should've left off the sound effects and just did them with music rather that vocal noises. One of his biggest bombs, "The Cat's Paw" is included in Volume One. It's a very strange and disturbing sound comedy. Check out the end when he pretends to decapitate people to make some gangsters confess their crimes. Really bizarre material.

Lloyd had three leading ladies in his movies. Bebe Daniels, Jobyna Ralston and Mildred Davis who later became his wife. Davis is one of those silent film curiosities that was typical of the era. Like Lilian Gish and Mary Pickford, she played 'child/women'. Although a fully grown adult, she dressed and acted like a pre-adolescent girl...but she was supposed to be the romantic lead. A bit disorienting if not disturbing today. In the movies with Bebe Daniels, Lloyd has his hand. In the movies with Davis and
Ralston, he has the fake rubber fingers since they were made after the accident so
when there's a close up of his fingers, it's someone else's not his.

One other thing you have to get used to is the heavy theatrical type of make up used prior to 1926. The orthocromatic nitrate stock did not render all colors properly in black and white. Fleshtones and eyes were especially difficult to photograph so the actors put on lots of make up to compensate. It makes them look quite bizzarre. Circa 1926 panchromatic stock (the same type used today) was introduced which gave the full range of colors in black and white densities. As a result, the heavy make up wasn't necessary and the actors looked like other films of the thirties and forties with more natural fleshtones and eyes. You see better details in their face and they don't have that clown appearance.

Part of the appeal of these ancient movies is to see the cars and clothing of the roaring twenties. Some of the films were shot on location in Los Angeles when they had street cars and in New York's Coney Island. The female fashions were quite different from later eras. There seemed to be an attempt to flatten out women's breasts in blouses so they appeared to have no chest. Quite different from the well endowed women of the fifties where large breasts were prominently displayed in the sweaters and swim suits.

Examining the silent era within the context of it's politics and industry
practices is quite interesting. Income taxes were so low, most people didn't even pay them. Certainly the film industry offered tremendous opportunity. This was the pre-studio system. No unions or guilds to tell you what to do and keep the playing field limited. Movies were made as a team effort and upward mobility was quite easy. Actors, writers and even crew members were able to move into directing throughout the era. All of it came crashing down in 1929 and society and the industry changed in the thirties. Tax rates were confiscatory, unions and guilds dominated Hollywood and kept them closed shops. Lots of nepotism which is why you see the same last names in lists of cinematographers and other crafts at the time. A new production code was implemented in 1934 with far more restrictions than the code in the twenties. That's why so many people missed the silent era and it's free for all style of filmmaking.

An example of how little regulation there was in the twenties is in one of the Lloyd shorts. He can't get his car started but sees a junkie shooting up herion by a doorway. He rushes over, borrows the needle and injects the heroin into his gas tank which makes the car race away from the scene. He could never have gotten away with this type of outrageous gag in the mid-thirties. Nor could Lloyd have done his own stunts nor participated in the direction of the pictures. The unions and insurance regulations would've forbid it. Silent movies were often quite raunchy and risque since the production code was not rigorously enforced. Not quite the 'age of innocence' as usually described.

There is one annoying aspect to this collection unrelated to the quality of the transfers. They were released by New Line before they sold out to Warners. For unknown reasons, you have to suffer through not one but two New Line logos before each feature or short. I suggest zooming past them and starting on the actual movie credits. Otherwise, they'll drive you nuts after a few movies.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 05-29-08 at 05:20 AM.
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post #2 of 2 Old 05-27-08, 05:03 PM Thread Starter
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Re: Harold Lloyd Three Volume DVD review

I just got an email from the Lloyd estate. They are trying to raise the money to get another DVD collection released of additional shorts so it's unlikely they'll be digitally cleaning up the current materials for a while. I guess the bottom line is if these don't sell well, they won't have the revenue to transfer them to high definition some day and do a final digital clean up. So, please check out these movies before they get pulled from release again for another decade.

Regarding nitrate, I've had some experience with it. I've handled it and projected it.
It's deceptively normal looking on inspection appearing to be a piece of film that
you would find in a still camera. But it's not and when it goes, it goes quickly.
When I was rewinding a nitrate reel once, it seemed fine until I got to the middle
of it. Then the image began to stick to the base. By the time I got to the end
it was really rotted and the image was a gooey mess. The fumes smelled like rotten eggs and were so strong they burned my nose and irritated my eyes. It had to be disposed of. When I was editing "Space Avenger" in 1989, I had a suite on the second floor of the Film Center Building which was on 45th and 9th Ave in NYC. It was the summer and the smell of rotten eggs (sulfer) became stronger and stronger in the hallway. Finally I asked the custodian to look into it. Inside a series of closets were rotting nitrate reels that had actually eaten away the bottoms of the aluminum cans they were stored in. They had crumbled to a powdery dust that could explode at any moment considering the heat and humidity in the hallway. I'm glad I had them open those closets. They had to dispose of everything inside since the fumes
from one rotting film contaminated the other reels. I wonder if any lost films were on those rolls. A print of "London After Midnight" perhaps? I asked a lab technician
on another floor what would've happened if those decomposing reels had exploded.
He told me it would've taken out the side of the building. I probably would've been
killed. Scary stuff that nitrate. But I don't suggest archivists intentionally destroy it if it's not deteriorating since it represents the original quality of the movie. Undeteriorated nitrate is flammable if jammed in a projector but not dangerous to digitally transfer since the light isn't hot enough to start it on fire. Also the techniques used to restore old films are much more sophisticated now than when the same movies were transferred to tri-acetate decades ago so if the original nitrate negative exists, they should do it from scratch on a 4K scanner and output a pristine new black and white negative on estar stock for the future.

I don't have any nitrate in my archive but I've met nitrate collectors in the past.
They told me that all you had to do is rewind the reels once a month to 'gas them
out' and they wouldn't deteriorate. Also, store them in a dry and cool place and
don't put them in cans since the fumes cannot escape there and it increases the
chance of deterioration. Since most negatives are kept in cans, this seemed like
a strange suggestion but those who followed this technique swore by it. There
are nitrate reels that are still intact and over a hundred years old so who knows.
I don't want to take the chance though since nitrate burns it's own oxegen and
cannot be put out with water. It can only be contained until the film burns itself
out. It sure looked great when projected. Better than current stock since it
had such a high silver content and they made all prints directly off the camera
negative. Projectors back then required fire rollers which would scratch up the
film if not kept clean. Most surviving silent nitrate prints are very worn as a result.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 05-27-08 at 08:33 PM.
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