Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Loco boy makes good

My good friend Laura at Miscellaneous Musings, in composing a list of ten classic movies that she has never seen and revolves to do so in 2013, invited other bloggers to offer up their takes on the first film on her list, the 1923 Harold Lloyd comedy classic Safety Last!  Here is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution.

It shouldn’t be any secret to anyone who’s kept up with the comings and goings of this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere all these years that I am a huge fan of movie comedy.  Huge.  (And I don’t mean just in size—I mean…well, imagine me as Donald Trump: “Huuuuuuggggge…”)  My obsession with movie comedy began at a very early age.  As a kid, I loved cartoons.  (And now that I’m a bigger kid, I still love them.)  But I also enjoyed watching the antics of the great clowns like Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.  And even though I don’t care for most child actors, I still feel Our Gang (or as they are also known, the Little Rascals) are in a class far above the average movie juvenile thesp.

I was drawn to silent comedy as a little shaver, too—our local PBS station introduced me to Charlie Chaplin with The Gold Rush (1925) and Buster Keaton with The General (1926).  That station also telecast a weekly program entitled The Silent Comedy Film Festival, hosted by film critic Walter Kerr, who had written a book in 1975 on the great silent mirth makers entitled The Silent Clowns.  (Update: I received an e-mail from silent comedy historian Richard M. Roberts, whose memory is much better than mine and who corrected me that although Kerr did appear on several telecasts as a guest the actually host of Silent Comedy Film Fesitval was film preservationist Herb Graff.  More on this in tomorrows's post.)  Here I would be introduced to funsters like Harry Langdon and Lloyd Hamilton…and Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, before they teamed up and before they “talked.”

I also got an introduction to Harold Lloyd at that time, whose classic silent comedy features aired on PBS (these were the days before the invention of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) on Saturday mornings.  This is a positively true story: one Saturday, I had to go in to work in place of one of my co-workers (both of us were employed at our local radio station, a tiny little 1000-watter in Ravenswood, WV) and I wasn’t able to see Lloyd’s Girl Shy (1924), which was scheduled to be shown that day.  My sister Kat ended up watching it.  Don’t ask me why—she refers to my classic movie obsession as “your black-and-white” and it’s not like home video recorders were dotting the landscape at that time (and what ones that did were frightfully expensive).  But she watched it all the same, and for years—years, mind you—she would lord it over me that she had seen Girl Shy and I had not.  (I finally exacted my revenge and watched the movie on DVD—but I had a looooong wait.)

If I had to pick a favorite among Lloyd’s feature films, it would be no contest—I think The Kid Brother (1927) is his most accomplished work, though I have also been known to rave about The Freshman (1925) in the past as well.  If I had to recommend a movie to someone who had never seen one of Harold’s comedies…Safety Last! (1923) would most assuredly get the nod.  It’s inarguably the most famous of his features—even someone who’s never seen it is familiar with the iconic image that opened this post: a man in a straw hat and glasses, dangling from a large clock.  The photo has been reproduced a number of times…and imitated as well.

The plot of the film is fairly simple.  Harold plays a country boy who goes to the big city to make his fortune, and sends progress reports home to his best girl (Mildred Davis, who would become Mrs. Harold Lloyd while Safety was being previewed), embellishing about his menial job as a department store clerk.  Mildred pays Harold a visit at the store one day, and a fitfully funny series of gags has our hero attempting to pull off the masquerade that he’s no mere flunky but the man in charge (the general manager).

While Harold is frantically trying to get Mildred out of the store before his ruse is uncovered, the real general manager chews out a subordinate because the G.M. wants a really big idea for a store promotion—big, big, big!  And he’s willing to offer a thousand dollars to the man who can come up with one.  Harold, despite his lowly minion status, is resourceful when it counts—and he comes up with the solution: he’ll hire a “human fly” to climb to the top of the building that houses the department store (twelve stories).  You’ll have to beat the crowds away with a stick; such will be the curiosity factor.

The “fly” who will be scaling the building is Harold’s roommate, “Limpy Bill” (Bill Strother), who’s already demonstrated his amazing climbing talents earlier in the film…unfortunately, he did so to escape capture from a cop on the beat (Noah Young) who’s got it in for Bill.  And wouldn’t ya know—the cop just happens to be working security the day of the climb…and Harold’s attempts to distract him are for naught.  There’s only one solution: Harold has to climb the first flight of the building, and then Bill will meet up with him, change into Harold’s hat and coat and finish the job.

The cop proves doggedly persistent.  Harold finds himself climbing to the second story.  And the third.  And the fourth.  Eventually he’s in for the long haul, encountering obstacles like pigeons and angry dogs, while the movie audience alternately gasps and shrieks with laughter.  Harold manages to make it all the way to the top without breaking his fool neck…and faithful Mildred is there to give him his reward of a kiss.  The two of them will live happily ever after, of course, because that’s the way things were done in those days.

Safety Last! earned Harold Lloyd the nickname “the King of Daredevil Comedy.”  Surprisingly, Lloyd didn’t really make all that many “thrill” comedies—the other “daredevil” films on his silent resume are Look Out Below (1918), High and Dizzy (1919) and Never Weaken (1921).  Truth be told—Lloyd hated heights…and was deathly afraid of them.  Strother, a steelworker who climbed buildings as publicity stunts, convinced Lloyd that a movie using his talents might be of interest to moviegoers since Lloyd himself had difficulty turning away while watching “The Human Spider” scale the Brockman Building in downtown Los Angeles one day in 1922.  Harold took Strother to meet his boss, Hal Roach, and a story was quickly concocted—Strother would play a daredevil unable to fulfill an agreement to shinny up a building, and hapless Harold would be conned into taking his place.  The genesis of Safety Last! was born.

About the time I was watching Harold Lloyd’s movies most of the reference books I could find on him always proudly announced that “he never used a double.”  But that’s a bit of cinematic hyperbole—there were definitely stuntmen used on the movie, Strother (in most of the long shots) and a circus acrobat who does the gag in which Harold’s foot gets caught in a rope and he swiiiiings out to put our hearts in our mouths one final time toward the movie’s end.  But Lloyd did do some of the stunts.  And it wasn’t easy—he was no slouch as an athlete, but an accident involving a misfiring explosive used in a publicity shoot had robbed the star of his thumb and forefinger of his right hand (he concealed the disability with gloves) in 1919.  Also, too: as “the star,” the insurance people handling the Roach Studios account weren’t particularly crazy about an important person executing some of the stunts in the film.  Nevertheless, that is Lloyd in a lot of the footage in Safety Last!—and the only injury he sustained was during the famous clock sequence…Harold lunged for the minute hand and ended up throwing his shoulder out of joint.

Harold Lloyd’s attitude toward these “daredevil films”—despite his fear of heights—rested simply on the belief that if the content terrified someone like him, audiences would delightfully react in a similar fashion.  The one thing that a first-time viewer takes away from seeing Safety Last! is that unlike the movies of today, where the result seems to be seeing how many special-effects technicians and CGI-wizards can be put on the payroll, Lloyd’s comedy contains no “trick photography.”  There are no process screens, no double exposures, no animation, no smoke or mirrors of any kind.   Just a liberal use of platforms (that were two-three stories up) and a clever camera illusion involving perspective and shadows that Hal Roach discovered purely by accident shooting a comedy one day in 1916.

One must look beyond the thrill comedy of Safety Last! to see the true theme that runs through Lloyd’s comedies—that of the all-American go-getter, and his determination to triumph over adversity.  It’s what drives the plot of this movie (Harold can’t marry his girl until he becomes a success) and many of the other Lloyd features as well.  Lloyd’s characterization of the cheery optimist who wouldn’t quit until victory was at hand was in perfect sync with the spirit of the 1920s—the actor himself believed that pluck and determination was the only way a person advanced.  Grandma’s Boy (1922), Girl Shy, Speedy (1928)—in each of these films Lloyd’s character is out to achieve an end with a “never say die” attitude…though on occasion he added a wrinkle or two to the formula (both Why Worry? [1923] and For Heaven’s Sake [1926] put his character in a higher tax bracket as a wealthy naïf who becomes a better person surviving “baptisms by fire”) to prevent things from getting stale.

When “talkies” came into vogue, Harold Lloyd took one last stab at the daredevil formula with a feature entitled Feet First (1930), a film that includes a hair-raising building climax (though again, the main thrust of the plot casts Harold as a shoe salesman determined to become a success).  What worked so well in the silent Safety Last! falls flat in Feet: while the climb is technically superior to the silent classic, Harold’s audible grunts and groans make it very uncomfortable to watch.  Lloyd made a handful of sound films that have their admirers and detractors but never really was able to capture the magic of those silent masterpieces—he was content to live out the rest of his career (after making his final film, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, in 1946) as an elder statesman of comedy, occasionally releasing feature compilations of his past successes (such as 1962’s Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy).

The home video revolution was really the best thing to happen to the legacy of Harold Lloyd.  When I first started watching his movies on PBS, two of his features—Dr. Jack (1922) and Hot Water (1924)—had been edited into one full movie (Lloyd, in later years, like to tinker with his movies much in the fashion of George Lucas), and it wasn’t until the release of the DVD box set The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection in 2005 that I finally saw both films in their original feature-length form.  Fans are also lucky that many of the Lloyd comedies make the rounds of TCM from time to time—his birthday is April 20, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see a lineup of them in the April 2013 edition of TDOY’s “Coming Distractions.”  On the off chance that you’ve not experienced the wonderment of a silent film or a taste of one of the true cinematic comedy geniuses—Safety Last! will be a treat for you.  It was Roger Ebert who once mused that a person can only see a movie for the first time that one time…so I’m envious of those who will enjoy their first time out with Harold Lloyd.


Laura said...

Ivan, what a fantastic post! I enjoyed so many aspects of it -- how you came to "meet" Harold Lloyd, and the genesis behind SAFETY LAST!, as well as the context of some of his other films.

I like your point about the photography -- by contrast, when I recently saw LES MISERABLES, although I enjoyed it, I was constantly aware that much of what I was seeing on screen was doubtless generated by computer. SAFETY LAST! was blissfully free of that, and those Los Angeles backgrounds made everything even more real. As I was reacting to his climb, it was interesting to think that audiences reacted with gasps just as I did -- 90 years ago this year!

So glad you could contribute a post!

Best wishes,

Rich said...

How would you compare Lloyd to Buster Keaton?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


Thanks for mentioning something that I left out of the post -- these great old films are a recorded bit of history that shows what landmarks and other backgrounds (like Los Angeles, for example) looked like back then. There have been several books written by film buffs on the history of these locations, comparing them to what they look like now.

I was only too happy to kick in to your Safety Last!...it's the one Harold Lloyd film (though I'm fond of them all) that I won't hesitate for a second in slipping into the player if I need to forget the cares of the day. Many of my fellow silent comedy buffs stress that while watching these great old movies are fun, seeing them with an audience is even better -- I hope to be able to do that someday.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

How would you compare Lloyd to Buster Keaton?

Ooh…that is a tough one. Not tough in that I can’t formulate an answer—but tough in the sense that because Keaton is my favorite of the silent clowns I have to kind of keep my bias in check.

I think Keaton was far more inventive in terms of creating film comedy…and he was certainly more serious about filmmaking than Harold. Harold got a bad rap for many years because he made a lot of what he did look easy, and because on many occasions he considered himself more an actor that did comedy than comedian.

But Lloyd was always very generous about giving credit to his associates for the gags and the direction in his films (as was Buster) even though he played every bit as an important role in their creation. I think while Lloyd’s image as the modern-day Horatio Alger kept him from being taken as seriously as Keaton (or even Chaplin) his features contain just as many laughs as those of his contemporaries and in many instances were more successful at the box office. Orson Welles once remarked about Lloyd: “(H)e’s surely the most underrated (comedian) of them all. The intellectuals don’t like the Harold Lloyd character—that middle-class, Middle American, all-American college boy. There’s no obvious poetry to it, and—they miss that incredibly technical brilliance. The construction of Safety Last! for instance—I saw it again only a few years ago. As a piece of comic architecture it’s impeccable….someday he’ll get his proper place—which is very high.”

Someone else (and I apologize for not remembering who it was, but it’s hell getting old) once commented vis-à-vis the great Chaplin vs. Keaton debate: “Why can’t we have two comic geniuses?” And to that I say: “Let’s make it three.”