The Comedy Crypt of Lonesome Luke by matthew c. hoffman

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“Not only was the get-up imitative but it was an offense to the eye originally. I cleaned it up as time went on until it was self-respecting before it died, but I do not like to recall it and I am sorry that it is necessary to exhume it for this autopsy.” —Harold Lloyd

“Harold, you’ve got to be the low comedian. Think up some funny get-up and let’s get busy.” –Hal Roach to Harold Lloyd, 1915

In the annals of screen comedy, only a select few movie characters become immortal. They live on long after the generation that spawned them is gone. Three of the most iconic characters are the subjects of the Park Ridge Public Library’s Legends of Laughter series: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Buster Keaton’s Great Stoneface and Harold Lloyd’s Glass(es) Character.

The Glass Character, an ordinary boy in a straw boater and horn-rims, was unique because he was the first comic character like us– not a grotesque from the primitive days of slapstick or an eccentric we could never hope to be. Lloyd’s defining screen persona was also, in large part, a reflection of himself– the all-American go-getter whose enthusiasm and optimism carries him above life’s hardships. His character’s climb up a building in Safety Last! paralleled Lloyd’s own climb to success in the 1920s.

Since Legends showcases the heights of these three comics, I thought it would be of interest here to start in the valley of Lloyd’s career. Theatregoers in 1917 saw, on a weekly basis, the slow transformation of a mere copy to an emerging original. This evolution would ultimately place Harold Lloyd on a plateau of his own.

Unlike Chaplin or Keaton, Lloyd’s famous character did not come to him immediately. Before entering films, Lloyd had always seen himself as a dramatic actor on the “legitimate” stage. It was with filmmaker/producer Hal Roach that Harold Lloyd stepped into the world of comedy and wore the hat of a lead comic. His first incarnation was a character whom he called “Willie Work”– essentially an imitation of Chaplin’s Tramp. Lloyd’s second character was yet another Chaplin-inspired creation: “Lonesome Luke.” 

Little of what was in the Lonesome Luke series was memorable, and there were few hints of the ingenuity to come with the Glass Character. Photos do exist from these films which can be found in Jeffrey Vance & Suzanne Lloyd’s superb Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. I noted an amusing still from Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916) only because the image of Lloyd entangled in film recalls the one of Keaton in Sherlock, Jr. (1924). The Lonesome Luke series did, however, benefit from a supporting cast that included the Australian comic with the upside-down Kaiser Wilhelm mustache, Harry “Snub” Pollard, as well as leading lady Bebe Daniels, who really didn’t have too much to do in these early short films.

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When you enter the mausoleum of failed comedy– the cause of death either artistic or commercial– you will find crypts that contain cinema’s unnecessary resurrections, abortions, and dead-on-arrival messes like the “New” Laurel & Hardy, for instance. (Thankfully, they departed after just one film.) There are many from the earliest days of the movies, now emulsified, ravaged by time, destroyed by nitrate, or just plain forgotten. The remains of Lonesome Luke rest somewhere here, a footnote of a character whose visual history has not yet completely vanished despite a couple scares in the crematorium. A faint trace of cellu-Lloyd Lonesome survives.

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This subject’s case history can be found in author Annette D’Agostino Lloyd’s highly informative and inspired book Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses.

Lonesome Luke was born in 1915 with the film Spit-Ball Sadie. (Many of the early scenarios had been written by sports cartoonist Tad Dorgan.) Lloyd starred in a total of 67 of these comedies. Of which, 53 were one-reelers (about 10 minutes each) and 14 were two-reelers. Fourteen are known to survive today. He was, to use Lloyd’s own word, a “strange” character. From the little I’ve seen of him in Lloyd documentaries, Luke was a somewhat aggressive comic without any of Chaplin’s subtlety. This style was in keeping with the broad, knockabout humor that was prevalent at the time.  With his unusual make-up, his lineage was clearly part of the grotesque tradition that dominated early slapstick.

It was Harold Lloyd’s father who helped find the articles of clothing that defined the character. As Harold tells it, “In a haberdashery dad found a black-and-white vertical-striped shirt and bought out the stock. The coat of a woman’s tailored suit, a pair of very tight and short trousers, a vest too short, a cut-down collar, a cut-down hat and two dots of a mustache completed the original version of Lonesome Luke. The cunning behind all this, you will observe, was to reverse the Chaplin outfit. All his clothes were too large, mine all too small. My shoes were funny, but different; my mustache funny, but different.”

The films themselves were predominantly chase films a la Mack Sennett. They were shot by Hal Roach and improvised on location. Roach explained, “The entire city of Los Angeles was my property room. We would go to Westlake Park or some other location with Harold, a pretty girl, and maybe a policeman and I would start with one idea and we would work with that as a starting point. The actors would make suggestions, but we had nothing written down on paper.”

Where it all began in 1915: Hal Roach’s Rolin Film Company in the Bradbury Mansion in Los Angeles.

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In Harold’s defense, he never tried to mimic Chaplin while he was making these films. He attempted to make his Luke character as different as possible in terms of costume, and he consciously tried not to copy any of Chaplin’s mannerisms. Despite this, Lloyd was never happy with the character and would have preferred not to have continued with him for as long as he did. The Lonesome Lukes were, surprisingly, commercially successful. What drew the public to him is anyone’s guess, but despite the popularity, audiences recognized he was just a Tramp knockoff. The perception of the character was unavoidable. It was a character that had no real future as long as Charlie Chaplin was in the business. Unless he broke the mold, Lloyd would always be “that fellow who tries to do like Chaplin.”

This is what exhibitors wanted at the time: Chaplin imitations. Lloyd’s distributor, Pathe, was paying them to make a product that was very much in-demand. It was the comedy standards of the time that forced Lloyd to carry on with the low comedy antics. But it is to Harold’s credit that, finally, he was able to force the issue of creativity and give life to a new character different from Luke– and anything else on the screen.

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“… I had the feeling, and rightly so, that I would never get any farther with Lonesome Luke than I had. Because, underneath it all, he was a comedy character that couldn’t possibly rise to the heights that Chaplin had, and in some ways, while you didn’t directly try to imitate Chaplin, he was a character that dropped into that category.”

By the end of 1917, the public had seen the last of Lloyd as Lonesome Luke. Despite a popularity that may or may not have continued,  Luke’s time of death came on December 2 with the release of  We Never Sleep. (There would be a feeble attempt to revive the character in 1921 with Harold’s older brother, Gaylord, in the role!) Afterward, Lloyd worked to fine-tune a new character that debuted in 1917. It was one that would truly be his own– one that reflected his own personality. The character of “The Boy” with glasses would find immortality on the screen and endearment in the hearts of movie audiences.

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