Friday, April 11, 2014

Watch This: Safety Last!

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Safety Last! (1923)
Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

It is one of the most iconic moments in all of silent film: a man in round glasses and a straw hat hangs precariously from the minute hand of a clock, high above a bustling city street.  Numerous other buildings can be seen in the background, along with moving cars and trolleys, and the countless pedestrians on the crowded sidewalks appear as small as ants.  It is clear that this scene is not the result of trick photography, or the use of miniatures, but that he is actually hanging several stories above the ground.  The man in the scene is the great silent film comedian Harold Lloyd, and the scene occurs in one of the great silent film comedies, Safety Last!

Lloyd stars in the film as The Boy (his characters were rarely given actual names), who leaves his country home to find success in the big city, where he plans for his girlfriend Mildred to join him after he has established himself.  He finds a roommate, Bill, and gets a job as a lowly sales clerk in a large department store.  Eager to please Mildred and his mother, The Boy exaggerates his success in his letters home, stating that he is the store's manager.  When Mildred shows up unexpectedly, The Boy makes a desperate attempt to improve his lot by securing his boss's offer of $1,000 to anyone who can bring more customers into the store.  His idea: a publicity stunt in which Bill, a "human fly," will scale the front of the twelve-story store building.  Complications arise when Bill is chased off by a police officer he had inadvertently angered earlier in the film, and The Boy must begin the climb himself, with the hope that Bill will take his place on the second floor.  Of course, with each passing floor, problems keep arising that prevent Bill from replacing him, and he must overcome hazard after hazard to reach the top of the building.

Harold Lloyd is generally considered to be the third great comic genius of the silent film era, after Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  His reputation never matched that of either Chaplin or Keaton, in part because his films were not made widely available until recently, and in part because, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, he did not direct his own films, placing him outside of the ranks of the great auteur directors.  However, while his talent did not match that of his two revered contemporaries, his undeniably brilliant comedic mind and daring stunt work have earned him a rightful place in the comedy pantheon.

Lloyd's skills are on full display in Safety Last!, a film which showcases his everyman appeal and the thrilling scope of his comedic vision.  The film features a wonderful gag in its opening scene, which finds The Boy behind a barred gate alongside a priest and a uniformed official, while Mildred and his mother stand weeping on the outside.  Hanging in the background is what appears to be a noose, and The Boy starts off in that direction, accompanied by the two men.  Suddenly we realize that the barred gates are the entrance to a train station, and the "noose" is actually a trackside pickup hoop.  The Boy is headed not to his death, but to the big city.  Equally hilarious is the later sequence in which The Boy poses as the department store manager in order to fool Mildred, going so far as to sneak in and out of the manager's office with Mildred in tow.  However, the climactic building climb sequence is certainly the film's highlight, revealing Lloyd's gift for sustained action comedy sequences.

While it has been noted that the filmed climb was achieved with the assistance of a stuntman, it is clearly Harold Lloyd himself on the side of the building in most of the shots.  Lloyd, like many of his fellow silent film comedians (Buster Keaton being the most notable example), performed nearly all of his own stunts, and there is a breathtaking thrill for the viewer in realizing that he has placed himself in such grave danger to bring his comic vision to fruition.

The library's copy of the film is part of a seven-DVD box set containing nearly thirty of Lloyd's feature-length and short films, so if Safety Last! tickles your funny bone, there is a bounty of Lloyd's other work available for your enjoyment.

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