Monday, January 26, 2009
Movie Time: Rewind: Safety Last!
With a new year I thought the first installment of the Rewind we should turn the clock way back, to the early days of film making in Hollywood's silent era. I previewed my favorite silent film star, Buster Keaton, once already, so I thought we could turn to my second favorite actor of the time, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd was considered one of the top stars of his era, along with Keaton and the estimable Charlie Chaplin. In the early 1920's, Lloyd was arguably the biggest star of the three, out-grossing their films.
Lloyd also is one of the only silent stars considered to have made a successful transition to the talkie range, though it is his silent films that left their mark on his fans. Like Buster Keaton, Lloyd filled his comedies with sight gags and dangerous stunts that seemed impossibly dangerous to act out and none more so than the film highlighted today, his 1923 masterpiece Safety Last!
Made as a long "short" film, it clocks in at anywhere from 40 to 70 minutes, depending on the cut of the film. Lloyd stars as a simple country boy who takes a job as a store clerk in the big city. When he talks his boss into offering anyone who can bring in more customers to the store a $1000, Lloyd turns to his friend, a human fly. His friend will climb the skyscraper and collect the reward, but when he is arrested by the police, Lloyd must now make the climb in his place, encountering new challenges at each ledge.
The film is short on plot like many of its contemporaries but large on spectacle. Lloyd famously did his own stunts in the film, dangerous stunts that led into the films climax; in which we find Lloyd dangling from a clock tower high over the city. What is even more impressive is that all of Lloyd's stunts were done with only 8 fingers, having lost 2 of them via faulty explosives on the set of one of his films in 1919. He often wore expensive prosthetics or gloves and was extremely self conscious of the deformity even after his career ended. Though in later years after his death it was revealed that he did use stunt doubles and trick photography for some of his stunts, it doesn't make the feats any less stellar. The stunt man who doubled for Lloyd often credited him with performing many of the stunts himself. The climatic climb to the top of the building is truly a feat of film making and incredible bravery as the the stunts are all really dangerous and potentially deadly.
Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, often played the same type of character, in his case a glasses wearing average guy who would let no obstacle stand in his way. Also like his peers, he was fiercely independent, forming his own production company and fighting for directorial control. With the exception of a few talkies, Lloyd owned all of his films made after 1922. This allowed him greater quality control and reaped enormous benefits, becoming extremely wealthy in the process. Sadly, Lloyd's career didn't last. Despite the successful transition to sound, Lloyd was nearly out of film making by age 45. His films budgets began exceeding his revenue and he found difficulty in finding studios to help him finance his films and distribute them. He even invested his own money in films to keep them at his high standards, but to no avail.
Sadly his peers, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin would also fall from grace. Keaton signed a lucrative deal with MGM in 1927 and ultimately lost creative control over his own work, eventually ending up writing jokes for the Marx Bros and other comedians under MGM contract. Chaplin made several films after the talkie era began, including City Lights, Modern Times (a silent film from 1936!) and The Great Dictator in 1940. By the early 1950's though he was caught up in the wave of anti-communist McCarthyism and fled to Switzerland, effectively ending his career.
Even worse for Lloyd, many of his early works were lost in a fire at his elaborate home in the early 1940's, and much of the accolades that both Chaplin and Keaton finally found in the 1960's passed him by. As the sole owner of so much of his work, entire generations missed out on his work on the medium of television, which he feared would ruin his films by showing them at incorrect frame rates and interrupting them with commericals. It wasn't until his daughter's efforts decades later film goers re-discovered Lloyd's tremndous skill.
While much of this column has been dedicated to the great silent stars, don't forget that this post IS about Harold Lloyd's Safety Last! Easily my second favorite silent film, it is indefinitely rewatchable almost 80 years later. What made silent comedies work so well over time is the timelessness of the sight gag and stunt work. Unlike drama or horror films of the time, comedy remains immortal because it doesn't rely on the relevancy of the story or the acting, its simply about the laugh. Safety Last! should be on the short list of films to watch of this important era in Hollywood cinema.
Thanks for reading!
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