A young man, straight out of high school, with hopes of a dramatic stage career, hangs around the Edison Company studio, watching the actors, stars as well as lowly extras, walk through the gate. Unable to get work in the legitimate theater, he has turned, temporarily he hopes, to films. But access is denied. All of the directors have their favorite extras, and all of the favorite extras have passes to get through the studio gate in the morning. Unknown, with only one day of work in the movie industry on his resume, playing a Yaqui Indian no less, the man waits and hopes. One day, however, he notices that when all the extras return from lunch, in full makeup, no one asks to see their passes. He devises a plan right there and then. Dawdling away his morning, the young man makes himself up lavishly during the noon hour and joins the returning crowd at one o’clock, slipping in, with a casual wave to the gateman, for the afternoon shooting. The year is 1913, the young man Harold Lloyd. The actor was dogged, inventive, self-made, compensating for what he lacked in experience, training or talent with sheer energy, bounce, and push. It hadn’t occurred to him yet that he would someday play himself.
Lloyd’s entry into the studio that day—and therefore the movie industry— reads like a partial scenario for one of his later films. “He can do anything he tries,” the smitten sweetheart says in the first reel of Never Weaken (1921). It is not only her love for Lloyd’s character that engenders this type of unquestioning faith. Harold the character, as well as Harold the actor, could do most anything he set his mind to. In his best thrill comedies, he generated sympathy not only because he was liable to drop to his death at any moment, but also because he simply refused to. In film after film, Lloyd put himself in danger and emerged unscathed; he got the money, got the girl, and, most importantly, got ahead. His trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs spelled the facet of the American Dream on which his mass appeal was built: a mediocre individual and how much he can accomplish through the right combination of hard work, luck, and pluck.
A perfect example of his unwavering climb (this time to success and popularity rather than up a skyscraper) presents itself in the narrative of The Freshman (1925), directed by Frank C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. A small-town young man with wildly unrealistic dreams of college, Harold Lamb—and what better name could underscore his innocence—seems the least likely person on the planet to become popular, but giving up is a foreign concept to him. By the end, he has everything he ever wanted: his classmates’ respect and adoration and a beautiful girl who loves him. The future has never looked brighter; there is no way this young man will not win in life as he did on that football field, or even, hopefully, taking fewer falls and hits. Twenty years later, in Preston Sturges’ characteristically disenchanted Mad Wednesday (1947), the once hearty and hopeful Harold, now bearing the purposely bureaucratized last name of Diddlebock, is slow, broken, bent, a sad parody of the dreams he had as a boy, of Lamb’s triumph as well as the falsity of idealistic American clichés that triumph was built on. Lloyd’s silent characters embodied the hopes of the nation in the twenties, but his naïve optimism had no pull on a post-Depression era audience in the sound period. The homely, small-town values had betrayed him as well as the viewers; the tools required for success in this world—significantly, in Sturges’ film an urban one—were of a much more cynical nature.