Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age: At the American Film Institute is a unique book by George Stevens Jr., son of celebrated film director George Stevens. The volume summarises a series of encounters at the AFI with legendary filmmakers: Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Ernest Lehman, Ingmar Bergman, Fred Zinneman, Stanley Cortez, Ray Bradbury, Elia Kazan, Jean Renoir, Robert Wise, Federico Fellini, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, David Lean… All these film giants (and a few more) tell us about their craft. Wish had been there.
One of the great chats of the book is with superb movie pioneer and comedian Harold Lloyd.
Now a name not always properly remembered, Lloyd, mainly in the 1910s and 20s, was a giant of comedy, which made him very rich and popular. Nowadays, though, he does not seem to enjoy the same kind of celebrity that Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton have.
Let’s hear a few things that Mr. Harold Lloyd had to say about his profession in a very specific place and time, the magic place and time of Hollywood’s pioneers, silent movies, and the arrival of sound.
Financing his Own Pictures
From (a certain) time on I produced and financed my own pictures. It sounds like bragging, but we didn’t borrow from the bank. We kept a certain amount of money aside and financed our own pictures. In a way we gambled a little heavier than some people do at Las Vegas, but we always got away with it. In one picture we put in close to a million dollars.
Ad-libbing as a Way of Life
The way we would ad-lib was that we would have a number of gagmen in our office, as many as four to eight of them. They were very expensive—in those days you paid eight hundred dollars. That’s quite a figure. I’d come in and they’d throw ideas at me. I knew what we wanted and we worked out a theme or story line which could be changed at any moment.
Working with the Gagmen
In trying to be spontaneous, we’d work out a series of scenes for the day. We knew we had little islands of what we were going to do, but in between those set ideas, we’d ad-lib. By the time we had shot it four times, little islands would be left out and maybe we’d change the whole idea, we’d have all new business, things came to us that we didn’t think of in the gag room. That’s the reason you got adept at ad-libbing, creating as you went along, thinking of different things.
Is it good to let the audience in on your gag, to let them enjoy knowing what’s going to happen, or should you surprise them? I’ve had many gags that we had to shoot both ways because we weren’t sure. I would say that three-fourths of the time surprise is best, but sometimes it turns out to be much funnier when the audience is in on it and enjoying what’s happening to the comic.
The Arrival of Sound
After many years of making silent movies, Lloyd quickly adapted to the new sound reality.
(…) I had completed a picture called Welcome Danger. I had finished it as a silent, and when we previewed it for about the third time, there was a one-reeler sound comedy on the bill and they howled at it. It had the punkest gags, but they were laughing at the pouring of water, the frying of eggs—it didn’t matter what—the clinking of ice in a glass.
We said, “My God, we worked our hearts out to get laughs with thought-out gags and look here: just because they’ve got some sound, they’re roaring at these things.” I said, “Let’s get on the ball. We ought to try and make this a sound picture. Let’s see how much we can keep of it and dub it”—we didn’t know much about dubbing in those days either—“and we’ll make the rest of it over.” That was the one that cost me the most—close to a million dollars. It also made the most money. Welcome Danger is the one made in underground Chinatown.
Well, right now we’re going through the throes of trying to keep a lot of one-reelers from being lost. Nitrate, as you all know, is a very dangerous form of film and very tricky. It turns into jelly. Of all the pictures ever made on nitrate negatives, more than half have been lost, including many of mine.
So Many Lost Movies
(Movies) were stored in New Jersey, in a place called Bound Brook. Everybody stored them there, and they had a tremendous fire and all of ours were destroyed. And I had a fire at my house though, fortunately, I didn’t keep the ones that I treasure the most there. Nitrate film, for no reason at all, just explodes sometimes. They’re such nasty fires because of the fumes and everything. That’s why a great many films have been lost, and a lot of others are gone because no one preserved them. They just didn’t think they were valuable.
Lloyd appeared in nearly two hundred short films before making 7 feature-length films. A few of them are:
Safety Last! famous ground-breaking final scene:
More about silent movies in Buster Keaton: The Best Comedian Ever?
More about Making Movies? Check How Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was Written, Film Blocking, What is it?, The 5 Best Books on Making Movies, by Darren Aronofsky, First Assistant Directors: Who Are They?, The World of Movie Posters and Foley Artists: Who Are They?, amongst many others!
More on “Making Of” Books in Best “Making Of” Books: EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS, Best “Making Of” Books: BLADE RUNNERS, DEER HUNTERS &…, Best “Making Of” Books: THE JAWS LOG, Best “Making Of” Books: KING KONG ’76 and Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, amongst others.