When it comes to answering the question "Who was the greatest comedic actor of the Silent Era," the debate rightly boils down to Charlie Chaplin versus Buster Keaton. As arguments go, it is to silent movies what "the Beatles or the Stones" was to music in the Sixties.
But just as there were other acts in the Sixties, there were other comedians in the Silent Era. Harold Lloyd, I suppose, would be to Chaplin and Keaton what The Who was to their better-known contemporaries, that is, not as celebrated but producing classic work that still holds up.
Although as far as I know, Harold Lloyd never smashed a guitar or drove a limousine into a swimming pool.
Okay, enough with the metaphors.
Chaplin had The Tramp, Keaton was The Great Stoneface. Lloyd's character was essentially a 75-cent pair of eyeglasses—without lenses—that turned a blandly handsome man into a nebbishy clerk or a naive rube or a clueless rich kid stumbling through a world he only thinks he understands. In fact, it's probably not an exaggeration to say that Lloyd's glasses were more famous than he was.
Lloyd's best movies are Safety Last!, The Kid Brother, Girl Shy and The Freshman. His comedy For Heaven's Sake was the twelfth highest grossing movie of the Silent Era.
The most unforgettable scene of his career comes from Safety Last! where Lloyd climbs the face of a high-rise building, hanging precariously at one point from the hands of a clock.
Lloyd performed the entire climb and stunt himself although he later said he had mattresses and scaffolding two or three stories below him in case he fell.
Although he has been called "The Third Genius," and his films outgrossed those of both Chaplin and Keaton, Roger Ebert contends, I think correctly, that Lloyd was "not a genius in their sense, creating comedy out of inspiration and instinct and an angle on the world."
Which is to say, you won't see the same inspired flights of lunacy you see in Chaplin and Keaton—the visitation by angels, including a flying dog with wings, as in Chaplin's The Kid; or Keaton's spirit leaving his body to climb into a movie screen as in Sherlock, Jr.
The set-ups in Lloyd are more conventional (the rented tuxedo falling apart during a dance, for example). Where Lloyd excels, and where he earns mention with those two giants of silent comedy, is in his execution of his set-ups—the tuxedo doesn't just fall apart, his tailor darts around the room with him, sewing it back together.
"Lloyd was an ordinary man," Walter Kerr wrote in The Silent Clowns, "like the rest of us: ungrotesque, uninspired. If he wanted to be a successful film comedian, he would have to learn how to be one, and learn the hard way."
Ebert summed up the differences between the three comics this way:
"Lloyd is a real man climbing a building; Keaton, as he stands just exactly where a building will not crush him, is an instrument of cosmic fate. And Chaplin is a visitor to our universe from the one that exists in his mind."
Still, genius or not, Harold Lloyd inspired generations of actors who came after him. Cary Grant modeled his classic performance in Bringing Up Baby on Harold Lloyd's persona, which in turn was the basis for Tony Curtis's brilliant imitation of Grant in Some Like It Hot. And I wouldn't be the first person to note that Woody Allen drew in part on Lloyd in creating his own style (which is essentially Bob Hope in Harold Lloyd's body).
Lloyd was nominated for a Golden Globe late in his career, for the 1947 Preston Sturges comedy The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock (later edited and reissued as Mad Wednesday), and received an honorary Oscar in 1953. He died at the age of 78, living long enough to see a revival of interest in his career.