Silent Harold

Google in Marilyn Monroe, then click on ‘Images’ as I did one cruisy retirement day when I was discovering what the ether held for me at that particular point in time. Of course, all the usual suspects were present – the first Playboy centrefold, the effect of a subway updraught vent on a dress, Bert Stern’s last sessions with her nude body thinly covered in diaphanous gauze – captured just before her candle was snuffed out. But then I found one that I hadn’t sighted previously – the sex symbol of my youth adorned in a black peignoir. It was not so much the image that struck me, but the name of the photographer. I’d heard it before, but in a different context. Could it be the one and same person? It was.

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Now days, if we recognise the name Harold Lloyd at all, it is as one of the pioneers of the early decades of the movie industry business. Following in the footsteps of Chaplin and Keaton, in non-talkies such as ‘Safety Last’ (1923) and Girl Shy (1924), he had the chops to make an audience stay riveted to their seats in the silent era. By the thirties he had retired from appearing in front of the camera to work on what went on behind it – mainly in production. He also wished to indulge his passions – one of these being, in fact, the camera itself. He was fascinated by the technology of all forms of the apparatus – and that is how he came to be photographing a sultry Marilyn Monroe later in life. Even that wasn’t so straight forward as I discovered. Harold Lloyd was handicapped – a story in itself.

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In 1919, whilst doing some publicity for a movie he was appearing in, what was meant to have been a false bomb being used as a prop turned out to be not so false after all. The resulting explosion caused the actor to experience flight; the result of which being that he was unable to fully discern the full extent of his injuries He had been rendered blind. Thankfully, after first fearing the worse, his sight gradually improved and was fully restored after eight months. By then he had full awareness of the other injury – he was missing half a hand. For the rest of his life he wore a leather glove protecting his prosthetic digits.

Lloyd was fascinated with all forms of cameras – how they worked and the product wrought from them. What especially transfixed him were the twin lensed varieties producing 3-D slides. By the time he died in 1971, he had a collection of over three hundred thousand of these slides in his estate. An intriguing factor is their subjects. Quite a number were of young women, including many of the era’s starlets. Lloyd, though, was not alone in being enthused by the attractions of the twin image. In 1940 the Hollywood Stereoscopic Society was formed by the old silent movie icon. Its membership included such notables as Dick Powell and Ronald Colman. Was it just a front for ageing men intent on attaining access to nubile young women, such as Bettie Page, prepared to undress for the prospect of some future tinsel town fame? I have no idea – but it is recorded that Lloyd himself was quite anal about his craft. He wasn’t a point and hope merchant – he spent hours fiddling with various lenses, filters and lighting to achieve pre-determined results.

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His home, Greenacres, was a popular hangout for the Hollywood glitterati. There he took images of such folk as Candice Bergen, Alan Ladd, Mary Pickford, and Jayne Mansfield, as well as a bevy of curvy women who weren’t adverse to shedding their clothing to reveal oft pneumatic nakedness. Still later in life – we’re talking sixties now – there came into being the ‘Happy Seven’. These gentlemen, including our snapper, took off on cross country jaunts, with a couple of models in tow each time. The latter’s task was to posed nude in the great American countryside. What a happy dotage our man must have had. He wasn’t mono-focused on the unclad body alone, though. Lloyd travelled the US and the world documenting, with his camera, what he saw. He has given us an irreplaceable look into the Mad Man period – even snapping the Beatles performing at the Hollywood Bowl.

But back to that original image I espied. In 1925 a director bought a very fresh-faced Marilyn to Greenacres to film some scenes for one of her early features – not the first time his home had appeared in a movie production. The two met and she posed for him by the pool. A short time later another photographer was hired to capture her for the cover of ‘Life’ and Lloyd tagged along with his stereoscopic camera. It was then he photographed her in the sexy night attire of that alluring image I encountered.

Lloyd’s second claim to fame is gaining some traction, with galleries now treating his oeuvre as of some import. Could it be that one day he’ll be more remembered for what he produced in later life, as opposed to the days when his comedic turns lit up the silent silver screen?

To view a gallery of his images (warning – some tasteful nudity) =

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