Saturday, August 10, 2013

Stubs – Safety Last!

Safety Last! (1923) Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke. Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor. Screenplay by Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan. Produced by Hal Roach. Run time 73 minutes. U.S.  Black and white, Silent, Comedy, Romance

Ninety years ago this year, one of the most famous films from the silent issue was released, Safety Last! If you have never seen the film, you have probably seen a photograph from the film. One of the most iconic images from the silent film era features Harold Lloyd hanging from the hand of an outdoor clock mounted on the side of a building. That image, symbolic of the thrill comedies Lloyd was known for throughout his career, comes from Safety Last!

A veteran of over two hundred films, including shorts and features, Lloyd is lesser known these days than his contemporaries, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but at one time was considered their equal. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Lloyd had his own characters. Lloyd played Lonesome Luke in shorts from 1915 through 1917. But he’s probably best known for his Glasses character, which he played in shorts from 1917 until 1921. From then on, Lloyd made mostly feature films (11 silent and 7 sound) until 1947.

While Lloyd was more prolific than Chaplin, releasing twelve features to Chaplin’s four during the 1920’s, his individual films were not as successful. But overall his films made more money at the box-office. And like Chaplin, Lloyd owned his films. But unlike Chaplin or Keaton, Lloyd released his films very infrequently after his retirement. While Keaton’s films had fallen into public domain and Chaplin rereleased his films every few years, Lloyd virtually disappeared from public awareness until the early 1960’s, when he produced two compilations of his old films, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy and The Funny Side of Life. He also began to show his films at charity and educational events to great acclaim.

After his death, his films were leased to Time-Life, which butchered them, changing the frame rate and adding a musical score. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s before his films were restored and released on home video. In 2005, restored versions of most of his features and some of his shorts were released on DVD.

Lloyd came up with the idea for Safety Last! when he saw Bill Strother doing his human fly act on one of the high rise buildings. Lloyd could see the crowd the feat attracted; people were screaming, fainting and yelling. Wanting to get that reaction himself, Lloyd introduced himself to Strother and then introduced him to Lloyd’s longtime producer, Hal Roach.

Bill Strother's antics inspired Safety Last! He was cast as Limpy Bill.
Safety Last! opens with Harold Lloyd, also referred to as The Boy, behind bars with his mother and girlfriend, Mildred (Mildred Davis), also known as The Girl, are seen consoling him. A somber looking official and a priest show up and the three of them are seen walking to what looks like a noose. But in reality, the noose is really a trackside pickup hoop, which train crews used to pick up orders without stopping. Likewise, the bars turn out to really be a ticket barrier.

The Boy is really at the train station in his home town of Great Bend, bidding farewell as he leaves for the big city. Harold promises Mildred he will send for her as soon as he has “made good”. But success is elusive. Harold gets a job as a salesclerk at the De Vore Department Store and shares a rented room with his friend Limpy Bill (Bill Strother), a construction worker.

In order to make Mildred think he’s doing better than he really is, The Boy sends her gifts that he cannot afford. Harold has to admit to Limpy that he pawned their phonograph and record albums to buy Mildred a gold pendant, and that they now have no money for rent.

But back in Great Bend, Mildred is delighted with his gift and the accompanying letter, in which she learns that Harold has made it sound like he has a much more prestigious position at the store.

One day, Harold nearly misses work, even though he's there early. Looking for a place to write one of his daily letters to Mildred, Harold sits inside a delivery truck, which takes off and does not stop until it is on the other side of the city. Harold then rushes to find swift transportation back across town, first by clinging to the edge of an overloaded streetcar and then jumping into a stranger's automobile. Finally, he fakes an injury in order to ride in an ambulance. When the ambulance gets close to the store, Harold astonishes the attendant (Charles Stevenson) when he pretends to awaken and instructs the driver to stop.

Harold keeps looking out the front of the ambulance while it dodges through traffic.
After seeing a co-worker nearly lose his job because of tardiness, Harold poses as a mannequin and is carried into the store, thereby avoiding the watchful floor manager, Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke).

When Harold finishes his shift on Saturday, he runs into Jim Taylor, an old neighbor from Great Bend, who is now a policeman. Bragging about his pull with the police to Bill, Harold tells him he can get away with anything and convinces him to help him trip Jim. However, Harold does not notice that Jim has been replaced by another patrolman, aka The Law (Noah Young). This policeman is so angered by the prank that he chases Bill up the side of a building while Harold hides.

Bill is about to push over The Law (Noah Young) not Harold's old friend, Jim Taylor.
Bill safely reaches the roof and eludes the patrolman, who shouts “YOU'LL DO TIME FOR THIS! THE FIRST TIME I LAY EYES ON YOU AGAIN, I'LL PINCH YOU!"

Harold later spends his entire paycheck on a necklace for a pendant he’d already sent her.

Harold practically shops until he drops from hunger so Mildred thinks he's a success.
When she receives it, his mother urges her to leave immediately to visit Harold in the city. Mildred arrives shortly after a very frenzied fabric sale at the store, during which Harold was reprimanded by Stubbs for his unkempt appearance.

Women at a fabric sale practically pull Harold in two.
Surprised by Mildred's visit, Harold tries to act like a supervisor, which bewilders his co-workers. Shortly thereafter, Harold is summoned to the general manager's office where he receives an official reprimand about his attire. But when Mildred sees him leave the office, she assumes it is his office and insists on going inside. Harold distracts her until the general manager leaves. Inside, they experiment with the paging machine which summons Stubbs to the office. Hiding behind a large piece of paper, Harold impersonates the manager, ordering Stubbs to refrain from complaining about their employees' attire.

Mildred makes a surprise visit to see Harold who she thinks is a big success.
When the general manager returns, Harold tells Mildred to sit, close her eyes and open her mouth. He tricks the manager into believing that Harold is helping an incapacitated woman. But Mildred forgets her purse in the office and when Harold returns for it, he overhears the manager exclaim that he would pay a thousand dollars for a new idea that would draw customers to the store. Remembering Bill’s climbing ability, Harold boldly proposes to draw crowds the very next day by having a "mystery man" climb up the exterior side of the 12-story Bolton building, which De Vore occupies.

Bill agrees to climb the building when Harold offers to split the fee with him. Harold also proposes to Mildred, telling her to come back tomorrow at three, when he presumes he’ll have his money. The stunt is highly publicized, so the next day, the store is surrounded by expectant crowds who have heard of the stunt through the newspapers. When a drunkard shows The Law the newspaper article about the climb, he is convinced the mystery man is the same one who knocked him over. The Law goes to the store to wait for the climber to appear, despite Harold’s best efforts to get him to leave.

Bill convinces Harold to start the climb while he ditches The Law.
Unable to make the climb without getting arrested, Bill convinces Harold to climb to the second floor in his place. By then, Bill expects to elude the cop and replace Harold. Harold reluctantly agrees, but after he starts up, The Law spots Bill and chases him into the building. When Harold reaches the second floor, the policeman is still chasing Bill. Harold unsteadily climbs floor after floor. Every time they start to trade places, the policeman appears and chases Bill away.

Harold about to start the climb up the Bolton Building.
Although Harold nearly falls several times, and at one point perilously clings to the hands of a large clock, he eventually reaches the roof ledge, where his foot catches in a rope and he is swung upside down several times. Finally, he lands on the rooftop, where he is greeted with a kiss from a relieved Mildred. Harold then sees Bill still being pursued by the policeman across the rooftops. Harold and Mildred walk to the door leading to the stairs, and he unintentionally steps out of his shoes when they get stuck in a puddle of tar.

One of the most iconic images from silent films is from Safety Last!
Box-office numbers from this time are very sketchy at best, but it is safe to say Safety Last! was a big success at the time of its release. But back then the biggest film of 1923, The Covered Wagon, a silent western, earned a whopping $3.8 million in gross rentals. (I think they spent that much on water during the filming of the recent The Lone Ranger film.)

Thanks to some movie magic, Lloyd, who did his own stunts, did not actually climb a building. Using facades on rooftops and certain camera angles, the impression is given that Lloyd is risking life and limb. However, it should be pointed out that Harold was basically working with only one hand. For an August, 1919 publicity shoot for the Roach studios, Harold was holding a prop bomb. However, the bomb exploded, temporarily blinding him, burning his face and causing him to lose the thumb and one finger on his right hand. Using a prosthetic flesh colored glove to hide the disability, Lloyd carried on, though occasionally the glove does not go unnoticed.

How they did it. Lloyd wasn't in as much peril as it would appear on screen.
First and foremost, Safety Last! is funny. For the most part, comedies from the silent era are easier for a modern audience to watch. Silent dramas can come across as long winded, over acted films, while the comedies are, by necessity, mostly visual. And Safety Last! is full of some very funny visuals. On his climb up the building, Harold is thwarted from trying to get inside the building, by scaffolding being used by painters in one of the offices when one of the boards nearly hits him square in the face. On another floor, a vicious dog chases him off. On one floor a mouse crawls up his leg, causing Harold to dance a jig to the delight of the crowd gathered below. In one of my favorites, Harold opens the window on a photographic studio where a study is being made of a gangster pointing a gun. The model shoots the gun just as the flash powder goes off. Thinking he’s being shot at, Harold hurries up to the next floor. Even when Harold finally reaches the top, the window gauges on the roof strike him in the head, causing him to ultimately lose his balance.

Someone or something always stops Harold from going inside during the climb.
One of the more clever gags happens earlier in the film, when Harold and Bill realize they don’t have the money to pay their overdue rent. When the landlady opens the door, the two hide by putting on their overcoats and hanging themselves on pegs on the wall. They pull up their legs just as the landlady enters their room. Thinking they’re out, she leaves. Later, when Bill is sitting at the desk where Harold wants to, he knocks on the wall and pretends to be the landlady. Bill hangs himself on the peg and Harold sits in the now empty chair.

If you see only one Harold Lloyd film, Safety Last! would be the one. The film holds up very well considering it’s 90 years old and on its own would almost be enough to cement Lloyd as one of the great comedians of the silent era. Even if you don’t list Lloyd on par with Chaplin or Keaton, Safety Last! is certainly as funny as the films either made that year. Watching it might even encourage you to see more of Harold Lloyd’s work and there is plenty to go around considering the actor’s productivity. Most of them are not as funny as Safety Last!, but then few films are.

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