Saturday, August 24, 2013

Classic Movie Review: Safety Last

The story goes that one day Harold Lloyd noticed a crowd of people gathered on the street looking up at what was then one of Los Angeles’s tallest buildings. When he looked up, he saw a man scaling the outside of the building with no net and no safety lines. The man was Bill Strothers, who would take the role of Lloyd’s pal in Safety Last, a movie written to satisfy Lloyd’s desire to feature a man climbing that building in a feature film.

The movie is almost like a silent era Jackie Chan film in that you don’t really go to see it for the story, but rather the incredible stunts. Chan in his prime was a balletic martial arts comedian. The stunts performed (mostly by Lloyd himself) in Safety Last provide the film’s lengthy finale and centerpiece as a series of increasingly hair-raising befuddlements as his character climbs the outside of the building. He is waylaid by workmen, a mouse, a police officer, and in the film’s most famous image, a clock. The image of Lloyd hanging from the hand of a giant clock has been repeated and referenced countless times throughout film history, including by Jackie Chan, and most recently in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a film that is itself a paean to the silent era. The comedy builds and builds as Lloyd climbs higher and higher. It’s truly a remarkable feat of comedy direction the way he cuts together sequences that give the audience a chance to breathe in between laughs. It’s a system of build and release and Lloyd was a pioneer of using test screenings to get a feel for what worked and what needed tweaking.

Lloyd plays The Boy, a young man engaged to Mildred Davis as The Girl. Before they get married, he goes off to the big city to become bona fide first. After many months he’s still just a department store sales clerk hiding from his landlord for failure to pay the rent. But his letters back to his fiancĂ©e suggest great financial success. When she makes a surprise visit, he has to pose as the department store’s general manager. Nearly a century later, the premise of someone having to pretend to be something they’re not in order to cover up past lies is far from original. None of that matters, though, because it’s the minor gags that move it along. As a comedian he is not quite the equal of either of his more famous contemporaries, Chaplin and Keaton. But it’s his character of the almost straight man, with his round horn-rimmed glasses and smart suit, who happens to get himself into silly situations, that sets him apart. One of the big set pieces has Lloyd contending with a gaggle of women struggling through one another to buy fabric at his counter. This is a sequence that could almost have been pulled straight out of a Chaplin film, where it would have been stretched out to double the length and involved ever more goofing than Lloyd allowed.

Although the credited directors are Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, with story credits to Taylor, Hal Roach, and Tim Whelan, there’s no denying that this is Lloyd’s baby. He designed the climbing sequence, the special camera effects that went into making it look like he was 10 stories in the air, and the careful editing to strike just the right comedic chords.

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