Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Safety Last! (1923)

Harold Lloyd, clinging for dear life above the streets of Los Angeles.
Safety Last! is without question Harold Lloyd's most well-loved film, and although it has thoroughly earned that reputation, there is nothing in it that is fundamentally different than his other features, and even many of his shorts. All share the same sharp humor, and the same meticulous construction of gags; several specific gags in Safety had even appeared previously in other Lloyd films. The big finale in Safety is Lloyd's fantastic climb up the side of a twelve story department store, and even this was not without precedent. A similar high-rise spectacle appeared two years earlier in the short film Never Weaken (minute for minute, probably the funniest thing I have ever seen). Although all the key elements of Safety had appeared in other films before, however, never had they been brought together with such elegance and consistency.

This gag, where Harold and his pal hide from the landlady
on a coat rack, appears in several Lloyd films.
Safety is constructed in two distinct parts, the first of which seems designed purely as a mechanism for carrying the story on to the second, a freehand climb up the side of a twelve-story department store. In fact this is literally true: Lloyd conceived of the film as a showcase for the particular talents of "human fly" Bill Strother, who co-stars in the film in his own right in addition to doubling for Lloyd in the long shots of the building climb. The plot is simply an explanation for why Harold, who is obviously uncomfortable with heights, would choose to climb the building in the first place.

The first half of the film would be worth watching in its own right even without the big finish, but as it is, it is difficult to come away from Safety remembering anything else. Indeed, the picture of Lloyd dangling from the giant clock on the side of the building is the iconic image of his career. My co-author has made a point recently to speak out in favor of veracity in stunt work, a position with which I must whole-heartedly agree. I don't mind if the star performers are replaced by stunt doubles, although it is definitely more exciting to watch people like Douglas Fairbanks or Jackie Chan who do most everything themselves (I recently learned that Evil Knieval used a stunt double in portions of his film Viva Knieval, a revelation which makes me truly saddened about the state of the world). However, thrilling action sequences in films are just not exciting when I cannot entertain even the least illusion that anyone, ever, actually performed the feat in question.

That is certainly not the case here. Lloyd did not personally climb the building as was claimed publicly for many years, but his co-star Bill Strother did, and he did it with a broken ankle, which is why the film identifies him as "Limpy Bill." Strother, who is the one pictured in all the long shots of the building, climbed the facade of the International Bank Building in downtown Los Angeles, without any camera tricks or devices. He was wired to the building for safety, but he argued against even this precaution, and indeed had done similar climbs without wires many times before. Hence the broken ankle.

Shots such as these make it clear that someone, at least,  did climb the actual building.
The medium and close range shots with Lloyd himself, which account for most of the footage, were done on a series of building facades mounted on top of existing buildings, with a platform below for safety. Famously, Lloyd tested the platforms by dropping a dummy of himself from the wall, which bounced off the mattresses and fell ten stories to the street below. The wall was built in such a way as to make it easier to hold onto, but apart from these differences the climb sequence is exactly what it appears to be. The stunt was certainly incredibly dangerous even with precautions, particularly when considering that he was not on the wall for twenty minutes as is seen in the film, but spent several weeks filming these scenes. From the perspective of the viewer, each step, each hand over hand is agonizing, as every slightest motion puts him in danger of instant death. The tension this creates then provides the perfect fuel for a series of gags which rely for their effect at least as much on our relief at his continued safety as they do on their inherent humor.

This rope is not attached to anything.
This is not to say that the first half of the movie is not good in its own right; far from it. The real meat of the film is in the first half, in the nuts and bolts of the comedy. These are hard-working, well-written and well-filmed gags that are consistently rewarding no matter how many times I watch Safety. Lloyd's humor in general is smarter than that of many of his contemporaries, thoroughly earning him the title "The Third Genius" (after Chaplin and Keaton). The humor in Safety is not literate, nor does it rely on previous knowledge in the audience, but the gags are constructed in a way that requires careful and meticulous planning rather than whimsical improvisation.

In the opening scene in the film, Harold is preparing to board a train for the city, off to make his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart, Mildred (Lloyd's longtime co-star Mildred Davis, whom he would marry himself shortly after completing the film). He lingers on the platform with Mildred until the last possible moment, and then grabs his suitcase and makes a mad dash for the train, which is already pulling away from the station. What the viewer sees and Harold does not, though, is that his suitcase is still sitting on the platform where he left it, and that he has picked up a baby in a basket by mistake. The baby's mother runs after him, but while he has his back turned making the exchange the train passes him, followed by an ice wagon crossing the track. Just as he turns back to board the train, the back of the wagon is there before him, so he hops on, only to realize a moment later that the wagon is whisking him off in the wrong direction. He jumps down, and runs after the train, just in time to catch it.

Boarding the wrong train.
This sort of timing is characteristic of Lloyd's humor. The wagon is on just such a trajectory that it appears, but only for an instant, as though it is the back of the train. That moment precisely coincides with the time Harold has finished trading bags with the mother, so that when he turns around, he sees no indication that the train has passed. A matter of a few seconds either direction would spoil the joke, so the timing must be perfect, and with Lloyd it always is. Jokes like this are funny primarily because of the speed and fluidity with which they occur, as Lloyd portrays an impossibly fast ability to make split-second decisions, many of which are remarkably clever, and many, like hopping on the ice wagon, are all wrong. None of this would be possible in improvised comedy, and is only possible at all through carefully scripted and precisely orchestrated performances.

Safe at the top at last with Mildred.
This is in sharp contrast to the school of comedy Mack Sennett had developed at Keystone ten years earlier, which was built on the premise that if you simply put funny people in front of a camera they would be funny (to be fair, this plan usually worked with Chaplin, although even he got funnier once he started using a little more care). There are no cream pies in Lloyd's films, although a banana peel does put in an appearance from time to time. Particularly as his work progressed, his films began to look less and less like slapstick, although at their best they still relied primarily on visual humor for their impact. In many ways, Lloyd's features are the linear descendants of the Fairbanks comedies of the 1910's, which combined elements of slapstick with theatrical comedy to create funny, narrative stories about realistic characters. The screwball comedies of the 1930's seem to have developed out of this same heritage, albeit with another hefty dose of theatrical comedy mixed in. 

Overall, Lloyd's films were among the most popular and the highest grossing of the 1920's, and although they are all entertaining, Safety Last! is the most appealing and enduring of the lot, making it essential viewing for anyone interested in the origins of American comic film.

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