August 7, 2012

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Harold Lloyd!

This entry is part of the Harold Lloyd Blogathon, running from August 6--10th, hosted by salesonfilm, oldfilmsflicker, and tpjost.

The purpose of the blogathon is to raise awareness of the films of Harold Lloyd and reinvigorate interest in celebrating and preserving the Burchard, NE birthplace of Harold Lloyd. Visit Save the Harold Lloyd Birthplace on Facebook for more info.

...faster than a speeding bullet...

...more powerful than a locomotive... to leap tall buildings in a single bound!

Clark Kent, I suppose, had a little Harold Lloyd in him. --Joe Shuster, Superman co-creator

For years, comic book fans have debated the "real" identity of The Man of Steel: Superman, or Clark Kent? The alien immigrant or the Kansas farm boy? When teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in the early 1930s, they based the characters' dual identities on two famous film stars of the time, Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd.


Fairbanks: eccentric, dashing, acrobatic star of swashbuckling adventures, whose famous, defiant arms akimbo pose later became Superman's signature posture. Lloyd: at intervals shy and bold, homely and handsome, intrepid and timid, whose iconic round-frame glasses helped to normalize the comedian's hidden athletic prowess.

However, while watching many Harold Lloyd pictures in preparation for this blogathon, I realized: Harold Lloyd may have been the model for Clark Kent, but he's Superman, too. No disrespect to Fairbanks, but Lloyd did just as much scaling up buildings, bounding around cities, and rescuing damsels--he just did it in glasses and a plain wool suit. Unlike Fairbanks, who reveled in the adventurous possibilities of faraway kingdoms and historical flights of fancy, Harold Lloyd was distinctly a man for his time; his averageness made him counterintuitively spectacular. In the words of critic Dave Kehr, "The other great silent comics defined their own worlds; Harold Lloyd lives dangerously in ours." 

In fact, Lloyd's comic persona inhabits both sides of the Clark Kent/Super divide. He is as often an innocent country lad (Grandma's Boy) as he is a street-smart metropolitan (Speedy); in Lloyd's most successful outings, he is able to combine the two poles of identity into a spectacular character arc (Safety Last!, The Kid Brother).

Harold Lloyd himself was born in the tiny midwestern town of Burchard, Nebraska--might as well have been Smallville, Kansas. The towering skyscrapers of New York and/or busy streets of Los Angeles are analogues to Kent's adopted home of Metropolis. In fact, when Siegel and Shuster were dreaming up Superman stories, they harkened back to the Lloyd pictures of their youth for inspiration. Film fed into comics, and then back into film. 

Harold Lloyd in Professor Beware from 1938, the same year Superman debuted in the comics.

But I like to think of Lloyd as more an example of "living history" in the creation/propagation of the Superman/Clark Kent mythos. It is not as if Siegel & Shuster were only looking to the silent movie past; throughout the '30s, Lloyd was actively making talking pictures. His second-to-last talkie premiered the same year as Superman, 1938. (Fairbanks, on the other hand, stopped making pictures all-together in the early '30s and passed away in 1939.)

All of this to say, you can look at Lloyd's onscreen persona as influencing the formation of Clark Kent/Superman in more ways than one. Unlike Kent, who needs to "pretend" not to be Superman all the time (or, vice versa, if you prefer), Harold Lloyd is able to be both at once. The flexibility within the average--Harold as "The Boy," the everyman, the regular Joe (or Clark, if you prefer)--allowed Lloyd to stun us with his daredevilry, amuse us with his wit, endear us to his humanity, and cheer at his successes. The more normal "The Boy," the more impressive the (Super)man. 

Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby from 1938, the same year Superman debuts

You've seen Harold Lloyd in pictures, haven't you? ...Take his attitude--How he walks and how he moves, what he's doing, how he plays the scene. --Howard Hawks to Cary Grant 

Which brings us to later screen iterations of Harold Lloyd and his legacy as Kent/Superman. A pivotal point in this progression is 1938's screwball comedy masterpiece, Bringing Up Baby. The film's director, Howard Hawks, told Cary Grant to base his character, mild-mannered paleontologist David Huxley, on Harold Lloyd. Grant fixed himself up with a pair of round-rimmed glasses, an awkward-fitting suit, and the beleaguered exasperation of a man eternally cursed by comedic circumstance.

It is worth noting that even here we can look to Lloyd as a "living history" and a very real, viable influence on screwball comedy of the period. Two years earlier, Lloyd had starred in The Milky Way (1936) for director Leo McCarey. The film wasn't devised as a vehicle for Harold Lloyd, still boyish-looking then but well into his '40s, but McCarey new the material was right up Lloyd's alley. Incidentally, the next year, McCarey would direct another screwball classic, The Awful Truth, with who else? Cary Grant.

In Bringing Up Baby, we can see the influence of both silent-era Harold Lloyd and sound-era Harold Lloyd. I would post more about the Lloyd/Grant connection, but I think some screencaps from Bringing Up Baby and their equivalents in Lloyd's pictures speak for themselves.


I based the character of Clark Kent on the young Cary Grant. There's a wonderful scene in Bringing Up Baby in which he plays a paleontologist working on a dinosaur, and he's up on a ladder that is rocking back and forth. He looks terribly awkward and afraid, while Katharine Hepburn looks brash and fearless as she comes to his rescue. He has a shyness, vulnerability, and a certain charming goofiness that I thought would be perfect for Clark Kent. He even wears the same kind of glasses. Of course I knew I could never be Cary Grant, but there was nothing to prevent me from stealing from him. --Christopher Reeve 

Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in Superman (1978), forty years after the debut of character

This quote says it all, really. Forty years after the release of Bringing Up Baby and the debut of Superman, Superman: The Movie re-established the comic strip character's relevancy. I don't know if Christopher Reeve was aware that Grant's performance was in turn influenced by Harold Lloyd, or if Reeve knew that Siegel and Shuster originally partly based Clark Kent on Lloyd. What I do know, is that Christopher Reeve's performances as Superman and Clark Kent are by far the most iconic invocations of these characters in the history of Superman. For many people, Christopher Reeve will always be Superman/Clark Kent. What they may not appreciate, however, is that Superman/Clark Kent has always been Harold Lloyd.

Brandon Routh as Clark Kent in Superman Returns (2006)

Christopher Reeve did such an amazing job that to give him some kind of accent or more bravado would have been wrong. --Brandon Routh

This brings us all the way to the present--well, 2006. Superman Returns was such a blatant remake of the 1978 Superman, many film viewers (aka me) wondered by the hell it was made in the first place. Infused by a stoic reverence for the Reeve movies, Superman Returns didn't dare do anything unique or original. It's not a terrible movie, but so paralyzed by its idolatry of the earlier film, that it never really comes to life on its own terms. 

Despite the flaws in the film, it is interesting to think of this "new" Superman as being precisely as old as the character itself. In modeling his performance on Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh is in essence playing Reeve playing Grant playing Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd was at the beginning of Superman's inception, and continues to be a reverberating influence every time the character is revived on the big screen. Whereas Douglas Fairbanks might have contributed Superman's iconic pose--Routh does it beautifully--I would argue that the Kent persona--shy, bumbling, lovelorn, honest, hardworking, and forever optimistic--is all Harold Lloyd.

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