Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: Safety Last! (1923)

Safety Last! (1923)

This is one of those occasions where "they sure don't make 'em like this anymore" isn't just a tired old metaphor. Because, apart from The Artist and Mel Brooks' Silent Movie, they really don't make films like this anymore. Silent films, that is, and they haven't made them for a very, very long time. My grandmother was only twenty months old when The Jazz Singer came out, and in just three short years, "talkies" had almost completely overtaken Hollywood in a creative shift only rivaled by the "New Hollywood" of the 1970s and by the development of the feature film and the Hollywood studio system itself in the 1910s. Many of the biggest stars of the silent era had trouble migrating to the world of spoken film, either due to thick accents, strange-sounding voices, or an inability to remember lines, and in turn many actors from theater and radio found themselves in demand in sunny California.

One of the big stars of the silent era who wasn't quite able to make the jump to the talkie era was Harold Lloyd, a man who made more money than Charlie Chaplin in his heyday and lived the sort of opulent movie star lifestyle that would've made him a tabloid fixture in the present day, but is largely forgotten now while Chaplin and Buster Keaton are icons. This film, Safety Last!, is probably his best-remembered work, mainly for its third-act stuntwork that established Lloyd as what could only be called one of two things -- a badass, or crazy, and possibly both. Either way you cut it, Safety Last! is a very funny movie that still holds up ninety years later (ninety years, damn!). It can get fairly sluggish in its midsection, feeling quite a bit longer than its 73-minute run time, but enough of this film's gags had me rocking in the sofa or holding my breath in anticipation that I was more than able to forgive it.

The important thing to remember with this film is that Harold Lloyd always did his own stuntwork. This may not seem impressive now, until you remember that Lloyd wasn't an action hero like Jackie Chan, another guy famous for doing his own stunts. He didn't look like the sort of guy who could break you in half over his knee. No, he was a comedian first, which makes both the insane pratfalls and abuse his character takes all the more impressive. If you need to shoot a scene where Lloyd's climbing the side of a building, then you actually get Lloyd climbing the side of a building and film that. I wasn't kidding about that "badass or crazy" remark -- the third act of this film has him climbing, dancing, and stumbling his way up a tall building, and the film frequently does cutaway shots and long shots with his face clearly visible to show that, yes, he really did climb up that high and do all of those stunts himself. And before you say "green screen", remember: this was made in 1923, when the height of computer technology was the punch card. Remember that King Kong was considered a milestone when it came out a whole decade later, and its special effects trickery is obvious today. With Safety Last!, it's clear that all of this was done for real. And to think that Lloyd did this after losing two fingers making another film just four years prior. Lloyd, you had balls.

But this film was, first and foremost, a comedy, so how does it fare on that front? Right from the start, we get two hilarious scenes that play with our expectations and set the tone for what is to follow, first by making this look like it will be a completely different movie, and then by introducing a black woman (who only appears in the one scene) and running with a joke that is not what you'd expect given the time in which this film was made. The plot is pretty thin, revolving around Lloyd moving to the big city and trying to make ends meet while telling his fiance back home (played by Mildred Davis) that he's made it big, and serves largely as an excuse for an endless stream of gags that hit the mark more often than not. The office scene in particular is a standout of great laughs. My only big problem with this film is that, all too often, Davis' character seemed to cross way over the line from "naive ingenue" to flat-out braindead. The tricks that Lloyd's character pulls to convince her that he is of higher standing than he actually is were flat-out laughable at times, and not for the reasons that I think the makers of this film were hoping. Nobody could realistically fall for some of the stuff that he pulls, and I saw no indication that she was simply playing along with him out of love.

Score: 4 out of 5

A very funny comedy that deserves its reputation as a classic of the silent era. Don't just watch it for the "quaintness" of silent film, watch it because it's both hilarious and thrilling, and is bound to put a smile on your face either way.

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