Sunday, September 21, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Safety Last

"Safety Last" **** (out of ****)

It is probably the most iconic moment in silent comedy history. A man hanging onto the hands of a clock several stories high risking almost certain danger. But how many people can name the man or the movie from which the image appeared (cue Jeopardy theme.....time's up)? The man is comedian Harold Lloyd, the film is "Safety Last".

Every now and then I mention my love of screen comedies on this blog. Comedies are rarely shown their due respect by film goers. It is always hard hitting dramas which are shown the most appreciation. Comedy, it is said, is the most difficult of the genres to write. It's never explained why but my guess is because so many people find different things funny. With drama they feed on basic human emotions we can all relate to. But a man slipping on a banana peel, now that's an acquired taste.

Still I must call a spade a spade. I am guilty of this myself. I talk about comedies but how many have I written about on here? Very few. There is Chaplin's "Modern Times", a Bob Hope movie, something by Woody Allen and the recently released "Smart People". And "Modern Times" is the only other silent comedy I've written about. Something had to be done about that.

When I was growing up if you were to ask me who is my favorite silent comedian my answer would be Harold Lloyd. I took pity on him. Lloyd has been referred to as the "third genius" of silent comedy coming behind Chaplin and Keaton (or Keaton and Chaplin if you prefer). Because I felt bad for him, I thought someone should like him, I nominated myself. Of all of the films Lloyd made I had only seen this film growing up. My local library also had a collection of some shorts (2 reelers) Lloyd made but that was it. That was my introduction into Lloyd's work.

Harold Lloyd was considered an "everyman". He could have been your next door neighbor. He wasn't an outsider, a dirty tramp (like Chaplin). He looked normal (unlike Keaton, with his "stone face" expression). And, at times, he behaved like an adult (unlike Harry Langdon). Lloyd's character became known as "glasses". Lloyd described the character as such "glasses would serve as a trademark and at the same time suggest the character - quiet, normal, boyish, clean, sympathetic, not inconceivable in romance."

It was difficult choosing a film to introduce readers to Harold Lloyd. I struggled between this and his college comedy "The Freshman". "Safety Last" though is a good example of what was typical about Lloyd's comedy. In it he plays a character simply credited as "the boy". He is in love with "the girl" (played by his real life wife Mildred Davis, who appeared in some of Lloyd's films and 2 reelers). They want to get married but before that can happen "the boy" must go out to the city to make good. Once he saves up enough money he will send for his bride-to-be.

"The Boy" gets a job as a department store clerk but lies to "the girl" in the letters he writes, telling her he is big shot and doing very well. It will be a matter of time before he sends for her. But one day Lloyd gets a break. The general manager is desperate for a new promotion the store can use to attract customers. Lloyd's roommate is a "human fly". He can crawl up buildings, this character is played by Bill Strother, a real life "human fly". Lloyd suggest his friend climb the department store.

If Lloyd's plan works it will mean a $1,000 bonus, just enough for Lloyd to get married and start a family. But things don't work out as planned. The friend accidentally upsets a police officer (Noah Young) who chases after him causing Lloyd to have to be the one who climbs up the building.

Here we can see what made Harold Lloyd so popular with audiences in the 1920s. His character was very American. He had a "can do" attitude. Nothing would stand in his way. He represented the clean cut gentleman. He wants to live the American dream, fall in love, get married, live in the big house with the white picket fence. And Lloyd's films were topical. Advertising during the 1920s skyrocketed. There was always some kind of crazy promotion going on to attract buyers. "Safety Last" is a comment on the culture.

"Safety Last" though, one has to admit, is not a perfectly structured film. The film is really set pieces thrown together. It is a collection of visual gags which don't always advance the plot. We see Lloyd late for work and come up with an elaborate plan to get there in a hurry. Another sneaky plan to punch in on time. A set piece revolving around his hiding from his landlady and buying "the girl" gifts. Other films such as "The Freshman", "Grandma's Boy" or "Girl Shy" were more focused. The jokes were part of the plot. They were built into the story.

After watching this film I'm sure a lot of people are going to wonder how on Earth did they do the building climbing scenes. Lloyd has been very secretive about this not wanting to spoil the "magic" of it. He would let people think what you saw is what actually happened. That is not exactly true. It is true Lloyd, like Keaton, would do his own stunts, but trick photography was used. I won't explain how exactly it was all done because I don't want to spoil it. Watch it and figure it out yourself.

I remember the first time I saw this film and how I felt watching Lloyd climb up the building. My heart was in my throat. I sat on the edge of my seat. I was actually worried Lloyd would fall and hurt himself.

Something very clever about the sequence is you'll notice the street below is also in frame. But it is not a static background. Otherwise some might think it was all done behind a green screen on a studio lot. We see moving cars and people walking. It appears to have been done in real time.

The film was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Both men had worked with Lloyd before. Newmeyer directed "Hot Water", "Girl Shy" and two classic shorts; "Never Weaken" and "Now or Never". Taylor's work goes beyond Lloyd's films (the talky comedy "The Cat's Paw") he also directed Laurel and Hardy in "Nothing But Trouble" and a brilliant silent comedy "Exit Smiling" (which sadly is out of print) it stars Beatrice Lillie. One of these days I'll include it in this series.

For those who have never seen a Harold Lloyd comedy I think you will be in for a treat. Like Buster Keaton, Lloyd's comedies have a lot of energy. They move fast. "Safety Last" never lets up. It is one gag after another. The film is relatively short. Only 73 minutes. So it should be an easy view for most, even those who say they don't like silent comedies.

"Safety Last" is one of Lloyd's great comedies and one of the great comedies of all time. I will always think of it as one of the masterpieces of cinema.