Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Safety Last!

SAFETY LAST!             A-                
USA  (70 mi)  1923  d:  Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in 3D (2011) was largely a loving tribute to the early history of cinema, featuring plenty of clips from earlier movies, where the main characters sneak into a movie theater and see a portion of a legendary Harold Lloyd stunt where he dangles above moving traffic 12-stories below while clutching the hands of an outdoor building clock of a skyscraper, which likely spurned new interest in this film, as it’s the one time Lloyd topped Buster Keaton for degree of difficulty in a film stunt.  Lloyd was always overshadowed by the more popular Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose physical comedy often included danger to the performers, this film immortalized Harold Lloyd with what is arguably the greatest stunt in movie history.  Part of the reason Lloyd is less known is his films are so grounded in the era of 1920’s America, and he had a distinctive business practice of holding onto the rights to his films, where they weren’t re-released as frequently as the best of Chaplin or Keaton, so until the era of DVD collections, many people simply hadn’t seen or heard of most of his work.  Also, Lloyd, interestingly, refused to grant cinematic rights to theaters that could not accommodate an organist, claiming his work was not intended to be played with pianos.  Lloyd also held out for $300,000 per picture for two showings on television, which resulted in far fewer sightings of his work than Chaplin and Keaton.  His films, however, often included chase sequences or daredevil feats, where in 1919 he suffered an injury from an explosive devise that was mistaken for a prop, resulting in the loss of his thumb and index finger of his right hand, wearing a special prosthetic glove afterwards.  The film’s ironic title refers to the expression “safety first,” which places safety as a priority to avoid accidents, and is a lacerating satire on the potential hazards of work.    

Born in a small town in Nebraska, Lloyd, always anxious to please with his recognizable Clark Kent glasses, plays a typically average middle class everyman who believes that success can be achieved through hard work, and while eagerly striving for success and recognition, here he literally and metaphorically tries to climb his way to the top.  Billed only as “The Boy,” Lloyd already has a small town sweetheart, “The Girl,” Mildred Taylor, who became Lloyd’s real life wife and retired from acting shortly after the shoot, where he plans to make it in the big city, sending for her after he’s become successful.  Living with a roommate known as “The Pal,” (Bill Strother), both have a hard time stuck in low end wages, where one of the better sight gags is both avoiding the rent-collecting landlady by hiding inside two coats hanging on the wall.  While there’s a lengthy sequence of fate preventing him from showing up for work on time, Lloyd has a meager sales job selling fabrics at a department store, an exploitive job where he’s continually debased, where he’s hounded both by an overly oppressive floor manager (Westcott Clarke), a slave driver who’s a stickler for rules and maintaining a dignified professional appearance, all while he’s being besieged by a fanatically crazed mob that overwhelms him with non-stop customer demands, never allowing him a moment to breathe.  When he actually does receive a pay check, the employee name is interestingly named “Harold Lloyd,” the only time this occurred throughout his entire career, supposedly edited in without Lloyd’s knowledge.  As a sign of encouragement, he mails his beloved back home a piece of jewelry, claiming he’s become a successful business tycoon and that he’d send for her shortly.  However, she can’t wait and decides to surprise him in the city, forcing Lloyd into a series of clever on-the-spot moments pretending to be the boss.  But it’s only when he overhears his real boss promising $1000 to anyone who could produce a crowd for the store that he steps in, knowing his “Pal” has an ability to elude cops by climbing straight up the sides of buildings, a dazzling spectacle sure to draw a crowd.     

The clock face stunt was inspired by an actual Bill Strother performance as a human fly that could climb up the sides of buildings, where Lloyd happened to catch his act climbing the Brockman Building while walking in Los Angeles one day (Human flies were supposedly very popular at the time, as were flagpole sitters and goldfish eaters.)  The big finale to the stunt involved Strother riding a bicycle along the rooftop's edge and then standing on his head on a flagpole.  Lloyd immediately placed Strother under contract at the Hal Roach studio, where Lloyd’s own career began in 1913, creating a comic character named Lonesome Luke, somewhat based upon Chaplin’s Tramp, but growing tired of that persona after 70 films, he created a new everyman character famous for wearing spectacles, where his character could change from being rich in one film and poor the next, but the pictures consistently featured overriding ambition and optimism as well as a continual stream of sight gags.  While many of the interior scenes were shot at a Los Angeles department store Ville de Paris, owned by a friend of Roach, they shot in the evenings working well after midnight.  Everything on the big day is set, where “Pal” agrees to the climb for half the reward, but waiting at the bottom is a nemesis cop that has it in for him, so he tells Lloyd to start the climb up a few floors, and he’ll take over after that, where they could switch clothes and no one would ever notice the difference.  But things don’t go as planned, which means Lloyd must make the climb himself, overcoming any number of obstacles along the way.  While his friend is too busy trying to dodge a cop, Lloyd’s epic climb builds in a beautifully constructed sequence, arguably the most memorable stunt of the silent era, where the real skill is creating an everpresent sense of danger by continually framing the exterior shots of Lloyd on the side of the building in full view of the 12-story fall directly behind him, creating and maintaining insurmountable tension and suspense.  For today’s audience used to seeing computer enhanced stunts, think of the neverending parade of martial arts superheroes, or expert stuntmen creating death defying action scenes, what’s particularly stunning is how this feat was accomplished by a seemingly ordinary guy, a pure amateur with no special talents forced by circumstances to become a man of action, with each gag building in succession upon the last, creating a thrilling sequence that is the earliest film listed on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills List of 100 Most Thrilling Movies. 

1 comment:

  1. I have always believed that the climbing of the building is, consciously or sub-consciously, a metaphor for climbing in social class, for "making it" in America, which is what the Harold Lloyd persona generally is all about, and which was a particularly pertinent theme in the Twenties. To my mind, this gives the film an enormous resonance. Lloyd is a great auteur, unfairly under-appreciated in comparison to Chaplin and Keaton.