Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Brilliant Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last!"

Roger Ebert says he is not 'brilliant' like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Calls him an everyman who was successful through perseverance, not stunning talent. But I think someone who can still connect with viewers 89 years later has something pretty powerful going for him.

"Safety Last!", Harold Lloyd's masterpiece form 1923, has been my family's runaway favorite silent film so far in our series. From the opening scenes we were hooked, and continued to laugh aloud throughout.

Lloyd has a surprisingly modern quality to him. (Maybe this is underscored by the exceptionally well-preserved film. I understand that Harold Lloyd, unlike many other silent era producers, was meticulous about keeping his original prints stowed away safely). His face looks like one you would see today. Fresh, open, humorous, direct, ... not to mention good teeth.  He has a very charming, nerdish, appeal and a fantastic ability to express emotion with his face. (Hmmm... an olden days Jim Carey?)

He had our family in stitches with silly gags like avoiding his landlady who wanted rent, by, along with his roommate, stuffing their arms in their coat sleeves, hopping onto coat hooks and pulling their legs up and under.

The film is famous for Lloyd's stunning feat hanging from a clock on the side of a building. Someone, I forget who -- maybe it was that same Roger Ebert review (too lazy to check) -- said that this is a still-shot that everyone has seen, though almost no one has seen the movie from whence it came. More people should. It is great entertainment and a wonderful choice for dipping your first toe into silent film if that hasn't been your thing.

Although the film's value goes far beyond this iconic shot, the whole climbing up the building scene is simply fascinating. On many levels.

First, most basically, this is exceptionally entertaining comedy. Lloyd's character - through a series of silly setup moments - needs to do a stunt climb up the side of this skyscraper. I think they mention that it is 16 stories high. On the way up, he encounters children who accidentally drop popcorn on him, birds that torment him in order to get said popcorn, painters stuffing a plank out the window as he goes by, a mouse that climbs up his pant leg and a weathervane that has it in for him, not to mention the famous clock scene. (And, yes, from what I read online, this scene did inspire the clock tower dangling in "Back to the Future" and the new movie "Hugo" contains an homage as well).

Beyond the thrills of the plot, these climbing scenes -- give a perspective of historic downtown Los Angeles that is powerful. I am not steeped in that city's history, nor do I know these buildings and locations, but to anyone who is, this would be an enormous treat. An account of the filming, posted by the LA Conservancy, gives exact street locations and is worth sharing here.

Adding even more layers of interest, is the question any grown up watching is sure to ask them-self: "how did they do that!?" Apparently, there had been many decades of secrecy around the filming of these climbing scenes and that -- unlike in today's era where 'the making of' is actively plumbed for additional dramatic value and dvd special content -- it really was not well-known or discussed publicly. At least until many years later, and then there aere slightly conflicting accounts.  One thing that seems sure is that they were filming high in the air and that they were on location downtown in L.A. They apparently built a tower for the camera and a facade/set for the building being climbed. According to Lloyd himself, they built platforms below him and put mattresses on them! Lloyd never fell during this filming, though he states he almost did once. Although Lloyd did most of the climbing and tricks himself, a long-shot of the character seen at distance climbing a real building, was done by a guy they are calling "the Human Fly", Bill Strother, who plays Lloyd's funny roommate. Strother and his ability to scale buildings was apparently Lloyd's inspiration for making this film.

Maybe the most fascinating question and the final layer of interest is the "why" of it all. It is inconceivable to our modern minds for a major Hollywood picture to film anything that would put anyone - let alone our star! in such actual physical peril. The idea that the scenes unfolding in front of you are not, cannot have been computer enhanced in anyway, and although subject to 'tricks' of perspective and basic editing assistance, are an accurate depiction of people performing is heady. This lends an undeniable thrill to the experience. But what caused people to film actually dangerous things for our entertainment value? I guess, just simply, that they could. Still in in infancy as a medium, film makers were still working out what cinema was going to be, how it would be used to tell a story and what, if anything, was off-limits.

What I don't know about early Hollywood cinematic history could fill a blog, but I feel safe in saying that at this time in history there were at best minimal safety codes, controls on film content, and regulations on working conditions in place. What got made seems to be a function of what someone could dream up. The sky's the limit. Quite literally.

Maybe the reason that Harold Lloyd feels surprisingly fresh and relevant today is that he -- his style, his comedy -- was created for film. He was a product of the film industry, not a performer who imported his trade over to that medium from prior work on stage. He was inventing what worked on screen and his instincts were undeniably good.

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