'The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection'

At the height of his popularity, silent film star Harold Lloyd was a bigger box-office draw than either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but his films are rarely seen today. A new DVD collection of the actor's best performances, The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, could revive his legacy as the funniest man of the silent-screen era.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Charlie Chaplin was the "Little Tramp." Buster Keaton was the "Great Stone Face." And Harold Lloyd was the daredevil who dangled from the face of a huge clock. Lloyd is so identified with that single image, in part, because for decades he and his estate were very cautious about leasing the rights to his films. So silent film buffs have been eagerly awaiting the release next week of a boxed DVD set that includes 28 of Lloyd's comedies, restored and rescored. Bob Mondello says it is full of treasures.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

There is a majesty to that iconic image, Harold Lloyd frantically clinging to the minute hand on a giant clock face that's slowly peeling off the exterior of a department store.

(Soundbite of music from silent movie)

MONDELLO: He is many stories up, high above the traffic that you can see in the background of a shot that is clearly not being faked. There may well have been nets or scaffolding outside the frame, but no question he is really up there and it's really scary.

(Soundbite of music from silent movie)

MONDELLO: Turning gasps into laughs is now called thrill comedy, and Lloyd pretty much invented the form when he started balancing on rooftops and ledges in films like "Safety Last" and "High and Dizzy." Other comedians had always done stunts, but oddly it had never occurred to anyone to simply climb, as Lloyd does in "Never Weaken," a 1921 comedy that starts conventionally, but in the last reel lands Lloyd atop a skyscraper that's under construction, where he's soon losing his footing, leaping from contact with a hot rivet, grabbing a beam that comes unmoored, climbing down a ladder that's moving up, stepping on a plank that turns into a slide. The variations are quite literally breathtaking. He makes your nerves jangle with every gag.

(Soundbite of "Never Weaken")

MONDELLO: All of this is all the more remarkable because of an accident that had happened to Lloyd some 18 months earlier. For a comic publicity photo, he was supposed to light his cigarette with a prop bomb, one of those round, black things with fuses. Only there was a mix-up and it really exploded, blowing off his right thumb and index finger. Thereafter, in all his movies he wore a glove that covered rubber fingers on his right hand. Consider that while you watch him clinging to a ledge.

(Soundbite of "Never Weaken")

MONDELLO: The Harold Lloyd DVD set has 15 feature films and 13 shorts, nearly all of them silent, except that silent films were never really silent. They were accompanied by, in small theaters, maybe an organ and in larger theaters a full orchestra. For the DVDs, the Lloyd estate commissioned new scores and for a couple of the films they provide an alternate organ soundtrack so that you can hear how different that effect would have been. A traffic jam scene from the film "Hot Water," for instance. Here's the orchestral version.

(Soundbite of orchestra version of "Hot Water")

MONDELLO: And here's the same moment with an organist who's clearly having fun with the screen images of people leaning on their horns.

(Soundbite of organ version of "Hot Water")

MONDELLO: One thing you realize from watching these films is that Lloyd had to work hard at comedy. The character he settled on, the all-American boy with glasses, is not naturally funny in the way that, say, the "Little Tramp" was, or the "Great Stone Face." Those were sad clowns. Lloyd was leading man material, handsome and confident, so he had to come at things differently. Where Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton made their stunts look effortless, Lloyd got laughs by making the things he did look nearly impossible. His climbing left him knock-kneed with terror. His scrambling was frantic. And because vertigo-inducing camera angles put audiences in the roughly the same spot he was in, they identified big-time.

By 1928, Variety magazine had rated him the richest actor in Hollywood, his films having sold more tickets than either Chaplin's or Keaton's. In fact, he made more movies during his career than the two of them combined. So the fact that his is now the silent comedian face that you don't quite recall is a historical oddity, one that the DVD release of "The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection" should help rectify by letting him, as he did for so long, hang in there with the best. I'm Bob Mondello.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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