Adult pictures, all grown up: The nudes of Harold Lloyd

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Marilyn Monroe at home. (Harold Lloyd)
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Over the past couple of decades, with the great Quality of Life era in New York, the old stag movie houses have gone the way of Times Square prostitutes and subway ghetto-blasters. Pornography is now consumed solely in isolation, goaded on by the Web, where its sociality is … different.

Which was why it was an irresistible prospect to sit last night in a movie theater (even if it was the artistically august Film Forum), surrounded by people, and look at dirty pictures.

Well, at any rate, pictures of naked women. And to add to the thrill, the photographs were in 3-D, taken in the '50s and '60s by the silent film star and amateur photographer Harold Lloyd. They were being screened as part of Film Forum's "Classic 3-D" festival of stereoscopic movies from "Hollywood's first 3-D Golden Age (1953-54)." Guiding us through the slideshow were Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum's repertory programmer, and Greg Dinkins, the president of the New York Stereoscopic Society.

"Is there anyone underage here?" Goldstein asked at the start, in all seriousness. There wasn't. The crowd was, though, disproportionately male, which may have as much to do with the demographics of 3-D movie connoisseurs as the demographics of nude photography lovers.

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Goldstein and Dinkins eased us into the risqué pictures with an innocuous beginning: the iconic shot of Harold Lloyd hanging from the minute hand of a gigantic clock in the 1923 film Safety Last! This was followed by an equally tame portrait of a grinning Lloyd, decades later, holding his beloved "stereorealist" 3-D camera, for which he was, Dinkins said, "a mad enthusiast."

"Harold Lloyd had a lot of money and a lot of time on his hands after he retired," Goldstein explained. "I think he made about 300,000 3-D photos." The audience gasped.

They gasped again when the next image appeared. It was of a busty blonde woman with large areolae and flawless skin leaning back against a huge stone fountain, fur-trimmed wrap falling off her shoulders. An arcade of trees—the picture was taken at Greenacres, Lloyd's 16-acre Beverly Hills estate—receded into the distance, creating an idyll. (Stereoscopic imagery tends to give realistic depth and weight to scenery, but not to bodies.) For a viewer with a sense of the extremes of contemporary pornography, it—like the rest of the images—was unexpectedly gentle and lovely.

Still, the audience made an effort to get into the illicit spirit with an occasional moan or catcall. A long, low whistle greeted a photo of a woman peering seductively through a delicate wrought-iron grille. In another, a buxom woman stood triumphantly, a brick staircase rising realistically behind her. She was a tough act to follow, but Marilyn Monroe did the trick, lounging by Lloyd's pool in a pink one-piece in 1953, at the height of her fame—one arm behind her head, the other holding a glass (Goldstein speculated it was Coca-Cola), gazing with vague contentment off to the right.

We saw Monroe, a friend of Lloyd's, in her simply decorated apartment, resting against a bookcase in a long peach-colored dress. "Wow," someone said of the next image: Monroe leaning forward against the same bookcase in a lacy black bra and negligé, staring expectantly into the camera.

"This is one of Harold's kitschy setups," Goldstein said of a photo of a woman spilling out of a treasure chest amidst a profusion of silks. As in all the photos, the fabric is rendered in vivid, tactile detail, while the model's skin is dull, perfect, and cold. (Stereoscopic photos are, in this respect, a lot like Ingres paintings.)

"She looks familiar," Goldstein said of another model. "Does anyone know who that is?" No one did. He said that the names of most of the models were unknown. Lloyd found them through an agency and hired them for the day, paying them $25.

There was a photo of a model in the grass, and a photo of a model lying against bales of hay, and a photo of a model crouched on a fireplace mantel, smoke drifting from her cigarette. There was a slightly disconcerting image of a woman who appeared to be in a picture frame, hanging on the wall. (Lloyd loved trick photography.) Another, uncharacteristically threatening, shows a man in a devil costume baring his teeth and tying the slipper of a nude model. All of the women had amazing breasts.

There was a photo of the obscure starlet Joy Harmon, but no examples of Lloyd's photographs of famed pinup girl Bettie Page, or of Tura Satana, the star of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Those can be seen, however, in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd's Hollywood Nudes in 3D!, edited by Lloyd's granddaughter. (The book is out of print, but there are used copies on Amazon.) Though the book comes with 3-D glasses, the printed images aren't as attractive as they are when projected.

"You don't have the full color spectrum like we do here," Dinkins said. "Or the depth," Goldstein added.

Laughs of disbelief greeted the slideshow's climax, an eye-popping image of a model lying prone on a huge rock, breasts skyward, Monument Valley going on for miles in the background.

The final image—before the screening of the evening's harrowing main feature, Inferno—showed Lloyd on a ladder in his library, one of the forty-four rooms in the house at Greenacres. He's reaching, book in hand, towards the camera, and it pops out in vaunted 3-D style.

It's the kind of—to use critic Bruce Bennett's phrase—"comin' at ya" gimmick mercifully missing from the other Lloyd photos, which are surprisingly rigorous, and elegant, and tasteful enough to satisfy any prudish censor that this is art.

"These pictures are sweet," said Greg Dinkins. It was hard to tell whether he meant sweet, as in genial, or sweet, as in cool. It so happens they are both.