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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

SAFETY LAST! (1923)

Harold Lloyd, the Third Genius of silent comedy, has to be constantly rediscovered. Unlike Chaplin, who never left the scene/screen; or Keaton, who roared back in the ‘60s to challenge, if not overtake, top position, Lloyd keeps slipping from sight. Orson Welles, a superb film critic, opined that intellectuals & academics couldn’t buy into Lloyd's basic ‘Good American’ character, the hard-work-rewarded/Horatio Alger myth. (Welles undoubtedly saw Lloyd in light of his Booth Tarkington adoration, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS/’42 or SEVENTEEN, which he played more than once on radio.) Another suggestion has Lloyd intrinsically tied to the Jazz Age. (Chaplin Victorian; Keaton Historian; Lloyd contemporary and dated.) Others point to his reluctance at keeping his work in general circulation or having it shown on tv. (Like Mary Pickford, who had similar concerns, he also controlled his prints & negatives, and took good care of them.) There may be something to all these theories . . . but probably not. A more likely reason for Lloyd neglect is . . . SAFETY LAST! Plot: Harold’s career boosting publicity stunt is in jeopardy when his pal can’t climb up the side of a skyscraper, leaving Harold to do the job himself! THE END. Yes, it’s the one where Harold hangs on for dear life to the hands of a building clock, the iconic image of all silent comedy. And it’s a thunderingly well-made feature, with a clever set-up taking us to its thrilling & hilarious two-reel climb to the top. But effective as it is, the texture is wafer-thin, a cul-de-sac masterpiece that undersells Lloyd as a mere stunt comic without a safety net or a character to develop . . . beyond grabbing the next gasp or guffaw. Not to disparage LAST, which is something of a near-miracle at hooking & holding you in a vice-grip of panicked hilarity. But it also leaves audiences thinking they’ve seen all Harold has to offer when it only scratches the surface of this great comedian. GRANDMA’S BOY/’22; WHY WORRY?/’23; HOT WATER/’24; THE FRESHMAN/’25; SPEEDY/’28 and most especially THE KID BROTHER/’27 (a comic improvement on Henry King’s already very fine TOL’ABLE DAVID/’21), all loaded with real people to care about and laugh with. All more interesting in character & story development than the brilliant mechanical construction found in SAFETY. So, see this marvelous classic, but perhaps not as your first Lloyd. Certainly not as your first & last.

DOUBLE-BILL: See titles mentioned above. New Line released a restored Lloyd series a decade back, but now Criterion has redone SAFETY & FRESHMAN to fine effect with wonderful full symphonic scores by Carl Davis. Hopefully, more to come.

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