10 August 2008

Safety Last! (1923)

d. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor / USA / 73 mins.

The sequence that comes at the end of Safety Last! – in which silent comedian Harold Lloyd scales the front of a building and ends up famously dangling from the minute hand of a gigantic clock – is so good and so effective that it nearly erases the utterly mediocre fifty minutes that precedes it. Everything that leads up to the film's triumphant climax is painfully dull; dull enough that if I didn't know one of the most famous images in the history of cinema was right around the corner, I'd just as much turn off the DVD and go back to my life.

Lloyd was called the "third genius" of silent comedies – along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but always behind them. Third place is best place for him. He doesn't have the same screen presence as the hapless Chaplin or daredevil Keaton and he isn't as funny. Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, who are known for multiple films, Lloyd is best known for maybe two – this and The Freshman (1925). It's hard to watch Safety Last! though and deny the raw power of watching him scale the building, fighting off pesky pigeons and battling with windows and the things that come out of them.

I'll put my bias out on the table and say that, while watching Lloyd, I wondered if the film could have rounded the base from good to great if it were Keaton instead. (Lloyd and Keaton have much more in common than Lloyd and Chaplin.) It's not so much that Keaton's mere presence would make the film more enjoyable, but that something tells me Keaton wouldn't have let the lead-up to the building-climb be so lackluster. As is, the plot is the same, wholesome banality Lloyd did regularly. His character, known as The Boy, ventures into the city to earn a living that will impress his lovely girl, known as The Girl. After a long series of boring gags and scenes, The Boy gives his boss an idea of having someone climb the outside of their building as a publicity stunt, but he doesn't expect that it will be he who is forced to go up floor-by-floor. (The Girl, of course, waits on the roof.)

What is it about the building-climb scene that works? It's tense, first of all, yet perfectly balances its unnerving nature with humor. This acrophobic's stomach churned uncomfortably a few times watching it, and when a movie can make you afraid of the height from your couch cushion to the floor, you know it's firing on all cylinders. Our brains attempt to remind us that the scariest scenes in movies are just series of perfectly placed camera angles, hidden wires, and safety nets with stunt doubles. Safety Last! was done with the aid of numerous camera tricks and a stuntman, but today no one really knows – or is willing to say – how much the stuntman actually did and how much Lloyd did.

In the end, contrary to whatever our brains say, Lloyd and company knew there's nothing to be done about that primal fear that overcomes us when we see the hero hanging high above the street, held in place by a few springs and the hand of a clock. Who cares if there are camera tricks or whether it was Lloyd in every frame? It looks real and feels real, and that goes a long way toward being very entertaining.


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