Harold Lloyd: The Glasses

(reprinted by permission from The Lloyd Herald, Vol. 3, No. 2, ApJun, 1998, the official fanzine of H.E.L.L.O! - The Harold Lloyd fan club.)

by Annette M. D'Agostino

and author of "Harold Lloyd: A Bio-Bibliography"

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"There is more magic in a pair of horn-rimmed glasses than the opticians dream of, nor did I guess the half of it when I put them on in 1917."

Harold Lloyd is generally recognized as the man who singlehandedly made fashionable eyeglass-wearing in this country. I don't say that lightly: In Volume 66, No. 5 (1995) of the Journal of the American Optometric Association, an article by Byron Y. Newman, O.D., headlined "Harold Lloyd, the Man Who Popularized Eyeglasses in America," Newman, on optometrist, stated of Lloyd, "For optometrists in the 1920's, he was the man who popularized the use of glasses, especially horn-rimmed glasses, to a population who resisted the use of spectacles. Suddenly, there he was on the silent screen demonstrating for all to see that the wearing of eyeglasses added to one's personality."

Lloyd's glasses were one part of his new "Glasses Character," a screen persona which was a most daring break from the comedy standard. For the first time, a major character in a screen comedy series, Lloyd, shed the traditions of grotesque and unusual makeup and costume. Beginning in June, 1917, the "Harold Lloyd Comedies," produced for Rolin (Hal Roach's first company), featured a normally-dressed, everyday-appearing youth. He looked like any guy who could live down the street from anybody. It was only his glasses, his horn-rims, that set the character apart from its portrayer.

Harold happened upon the idea for spectacles mainly to provide this separation between actor and role. As Harold wrote, ":. . . When I came to choose a pair of my own, the vogue of horn-rims was new, and it was youth, principally, that was adopting them. The novelty was a picture asset, and the suggestion of youth fit perfectly with the character I had in mind."

To find the glasses that were just right, Harold shopped around. He tried two sets of frames - the first pair were too heavy, the second too large. Finally, in a little optical shop on Spring Street in Los Angeles, he hit upon the perfect pair. They were thin enough as to not be overwhelming; they were diametrically perfect for expressiveness. His first pair of the horn-rims, which cost him seventy-five cents, lasted him a year and a half. As Harold wrote, "When the frame broke from wear and tear, I went on patching it with everything from paste to spirit gum for three months until progressive dissolution forced us to send them east to an optical goods manufacturer for duplication." This manufacturer, Optical Products Corporation, sent Lloyd the check back and included in the package twenty pairs of frames. "The advertising," wrote Harold, "we had given tortoise-shell rims, they wrote, still left them in our debt." For the rest of his career (after his Glasses Character debut in "Over the Fence" in 1917, Harold would never again act without the horn-rims on), Lloyd replaced the frames six pairs at a time.

The frames were lensless. The eliministion of lenses meant no glare from the studio lights. Harold Lloyd, the man, didn't need corrective lenses until he was in his 60's.

The frames were not actual tortoise shell, but plastic. Historian Joseph L. Burneni, in his article "Looking Back: An Illustrated History of the Ameircan Ophthalmic Industry" (1994), noted that early plastic frames were created as an inexpensive substitute for European frames made by hand from tortoise shell. As plastic frames grew in popularity, they came to be called "shell" by the public and within the trade. And, there was a very enthusiastic public: Harold Lloyd, already a popular favorite as Lonesome Luke, hit gold with glasses and inspired a horn-rim frenzy. Lloyd's consideration for youth, voiced above, did translate to the youthful consumer - college students, in particular, couldn't snap up the Lloyd-like frames fast enough.

Harold realized the magic of the glasses for his new character's possibilities. "They make low-comedy clothes unnecessary, permit enough romantic appeal to catch the feminine eye, usually diverted from comedies, and they hold me down to no particular type or range of story."

In addition to this, Harold understood another unique-to-him, positive aspect of on-screen eyeglasses: "With them, I am Harold Lloyd; without them, a private citizen. I can stroll unrecognized down any street in the land at any time without the glasses, a boon granted no other picture actor and one which some of them would pay well for."

Yes, the clothes make the man. But, in the very special case of Harold Lloyd, the glasses made the character. And, what a diverse character the glasses allowed . . .

copyright 1998 by Annette M. D'Agostino. All rights reserved.


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