The Pathos of Lloyd, by Tyler Smith
Below is a paper that I wrote in college about ten years ago, in which I discuss the pathos of Harold Lloyd, as compared to that of Charlie Chaplin. I’ve posted it to coincide with my recent article about Safety Last! I was much younger when I wrote this, but I still stand by a lot of the ideas, though not necessarily the writing style. Enjoy.
When people think of silent comedy, or silent films in general, the name they most think of is Charlie Chaplin. They picture his Little Tramp character getting into one scrape or another, using his resourcefulness to get him out. However, when the name Harold Lloyd is mentioned, most people will shrug. It seems his legacy is a still of a bespectacled young man, hanging off the face of a clock, though most people do not actually know that that is he. Over the years, Lloyd has been all but forgotten.
If one were to ask why Chaplin has endured and Lloyd has not, one would probably get the answer that Chaplin’s films have an endearing quality uncommon of most other silent comedy. We, the audience, care about the Little Tramp. We feel sympathy for him. However, I am of the opinion that Lloyd’s primary character- that of a bookish young man eager to make good- contains every bit as much pathos as any of Chaplin’s characters; perhaps even a bit more.
My reason for thinking this is because, unlike the Little Tramp, Lloyd’s character (who will be referred to here as “Harold”) seems to have a deep root in reality. Every aspect of his character is, ultimately, quite forgettable. We have seen people like him before; tall, trim, and with an air of naïve intelligence. That instant recognition is quite different from Chaplin’s Little Tramp. A short man wearing clothes far too large, with a flexible cane, a bowler hat, and a tiny moustache. This is a character that, if it were not such an icon of American culture, would look quite foreign to us. It takes us a few moments to sympathize with the Tramp, whereas we instantly sympathize with Harold, based solely on our identification with the character.
Like a regular person, Harold is just trying to get by. He does not show flairs of emotion unless he is provoked. He only solves problems that need solving. Only seldom does Lloyd, the filmmaker, show his face by having Harold be a bit too uncharacteristically resourceful. Chaplin’s character fluctuates from uneducated to nigh genius on a regular basis. That is one of the primary differences in the worlds of Chaplin and Lloyd. Chaplin’s world seems whimsical, perhaps even magical, whereas Lloyd’s world is the world of reality; and this world extends to the characters in them. Where the Tramp floats and glides, Harold simply walks or runs. Where the Tramp trips and gracefully descends to the ground only to bounce back to his feet in amazing acrobatic style, Harold simply falls and gets back up. Where the Tramp thinks up ingenious ways out of his problems, Harold simply rubs his hands together and faces the problem head-on.
Thus, because Harold and his world are based, for the most part, in reality, we are more willing to sympathize with him, because we can identify with him. In Girl Shy, when meek Harold writes a book about how to succeed with women (something he has never been able to do), and eagerly gives it to a publisher, we know what is coming. We remember back to a time when we had a dream, yet were not fully aware of how difficult it would be to achieve it. We remember how hard it hit us when we came to that realization. Because we know this and Harold does not, but soon will, our hearts ache for what he is about to go through. To up the ante, when Harold enters the publisher’s office, the secretaries, who have all had a good laugh at the book, pretend to swoon over Harold, thus making him even more hopeful. Finally, when the publisher tells him how ridiculous the book is, Harold’s teary-eyed response seems perfectly natural and realistic, unlike in Chaplin’s films, where he bashes the audience over the head with overblown melodrama. Once again, where the Tramp weeps, Harold simply cries.
This pattern of depending on the audience’s knowledge and forethought in an attempt to gain sympathy continues in The Freshman, Lloyd’s most realistic film. The film begins with Harold about to head off to college. We see him in his room, emulating the behavior of a college-age character he saw in a movie. The behavior is plain silly; it’s clear to everybody, except Harold. The audience slowly shakes its collective head and thinks, “This guy is in trouble.” As Harold goes to school, he is singled out by the class bully. But, the bully, like the secretaries in Girl Shy, does not instantly ridicule him. Instead, he leads Harold along in the thinking that he is popular. Harold joins the football team in an attempt to attain popularity. The coach admires his pluck, so Harold is led to believe that he is an alternate, when in fact he is just the water boy with a uniform on.
Harold soon realizes that he can achieve a certain level of popularity if he spends money, treating people and lending out cash. Eventually, it is clear that the whole school is in on the joke, and is just using Harold for his money. This is where the pathos is kicked into high gear. Once again, Lloyd is feeding off of the audience’s previous experience for sympathy. For Harold has quickly become a character that most everybody is familiar with: the doormat. He is just like that kid back in grade school that would pay people to be his friends. The audience remembers that kid and we feel sorry for Harold.
This feeling continues in a rather complex way as Harold hosts a huge campus party. He has spent money on every aspect of it, including a tuxedo that isn’t stitched together as well as it could be. As Harold comes to the party, he is overjoyed at the attendance. Of course, nobody there actually likes Harold, but he does not realize this yet. As the night wears on, Harold’s tuxedo begins to come apart. Surprisingly, Harold is aware of this. It is one of the few times when Lloyd allows Harold to be aware of his potential humiliation. However, Lloyd uses this to his advantage as he adds layers to an otherwise gag-oriented situation. It is amusing to see Harold trying to keep his tuxedo together. He is afraid that, if it were to come apart, he would be humiliated and people’s opinion of him might go down. The third layer is that these people do not like him anyway. His tuxedo could be just fine, and he would still be the laughingstock of the party. This is something Harold does not know, but he audience does. It is almost difficult to watch as Harold struggles to maintain the approval of people who have never approved of him in the first place. So, because of the audience’s discomfort, we now have something in common with Harold: we are both very uncomfortable in this situation. Granted, it is for different reasons, but the feeling alone is enough to evoke sympathy for the character.
Soon enough, though, Harold is faced with the reality that he is the college joke. He is crushed, but does not weep. Instead, he decides that the only way to win the student body’s respect is to play in the big football game. By the time he says this, we have almost forgotten about his status on the team. But, we are quickly reminded, and are once again in a situation where we know something that Harold does not.
Now, we assume that Harold will wind up playing in the game, and we further assume that Harold will win the game. Such things are a given. However, in Lloyd’s execution of both, he shows his commitment to realism. One would expect Harold, when finally given the chance, to amaze the audience with his athletic ability. Somehow, Harold will reach deep down inside and muster up the courage and strength to win the big game. He does not do this. While he does win the game, he shows very little actual skill on the football field. He makes numerous mistakes and often shows his inexperience at the sport. His winning of the game feels almost accidental. This is realism. A man cannot make up for lack of experience with pluck and strong will. He will make numerous mistakes and we will question why he is on the field at all. However, all of his mistakes only make the anticipation of his scoring the winning touchdown more frenzied. By the end of the game, the audience has been on an emotional roller coaster, ranging from disappointment to humor to frustration. Because of this, Harold’s game-winning touchdown is much sweeter than if he just went on the field, showed exemplary skill, and won the game. The crowd (including the bully) is cheering and so are we.
That is the genius of Lloyd. With Chaplin, we are astounded by his ingenuity. But, by the end of a Lloyd film, we feel like we have been on a journey. Lloyd has not only gotten us emotionally involved with the main character, but also placed the character in situations we can all relate to. Not many people have been in a log cabin, teetering on the edge of a cliff, but most people have peered out the window of a building that is a little too tall for comfort. Not many people have found themselves in the gears of a huge industrial mechanism, but most people have been desperate to get somewhere in time, and then experience car trouble. Not many people have inadvertently joined the circus, but we have all been to school, and have felt the struggle to find out who we are. And that is what Lloyd counts on. Because we have been there, we feel like we are there, and, thus, Harold’s success and happiness is our own.