Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Safety Last! (1923)

Anyone who has heard of Harold Lloyd knows he doesn't get the same attention as Keaton and Chaplin, and it's pretty understandable why. Lloyd is a genius, yet the term is relative, and it means something different when applied to his two legendary contemporaries. For sure, Lloyd has amazing appeal, especially considering that, more so than Keaton and Chaplin, he represents modern man trying to make it in the world. And yet on a comedic level his films lack the energy and overall ingenuity found in Chaplin, and especially Keaton. 

Look, for example, at Safety Last!, Lloyd's most renowned work. It has some truly great moments, but also a lot of fairly mediocre ones. Take the scene where Lloyd (in the credits he's referred to as the boy, yet when we see one of his checks, he's revealed as Harold Lloyd) accidentally gets trapped in a towel truck and must then find a way to get back to his job. His solution is to fall down next to an ambulance and pretend to have fainted, so that they will bring him back in the direction of work. It's not bad, but I wasn't blown away the way I was by almost every gag in, say, The Navigator. Or consider the scene with the Pal that inspires Lloyd when he learns is manager will give a sweet grand to anyone who can attract more customers to his store. It's amusing, but it lacks the structural brilliance and grand wit of Keaton and Chaplin. 

Still, the movie is a complete pleasure, and Lloyd's character is utterly delightful and fully relatable in his tendency for human error. He's also that person who simply cannot escape a bad situation in spite of his almost constant good intentions. In one scene, he is called to his manager's office and learns that his job is in jeopardy. When he leaves, his fiancé (who has just arrived from out of town and with the belief that he's found greater success than as a mere employee at a department store) sees him walking out of the office and is under the impression it belongs to him, that he's the manager. Embarrassed and not wanting to acknowledge the truth, Lloyd notices the real manager slip out and plays along with her misunderstanding by letting her see "his" office. It's one of the many instances when we simply feel sorry for Lloyd; it's also just a really funny scene, one of the film's best. It gets rather awkward when the manager returns, but Lloyd manages to sneak his way out only to learn that his fiancé has left her purse behind. On his way back, he eavesdrops and hears the boss announce the large sum for anyone who can lure in bigger crowds. This gives him his grand idea. It's also an example of advancing a narrative seamlessly by using the effect of one scene to link to another.

That other is of course the astonishing scaling of a massive building by Lloyd. It's the film's historic moment, taking up the final third of the picture and the main reason why many see the movie as a masterpiece. It's without question one of the great moments of cinema, and so brilliant, funny, and terrifying that it almost makes you forget that the rest of the movie is only okay. Lloyd's intention is to have his friend Bill scale the building and thus bring huge crowds outside the store, yet the Pal is wanted by the police, so it's up to Lloyd to satisfy the huge throng of people he's gathered. The astounding thing as Lloyd begins his shaky ascension is just how seamlessly the scene is put together. In his essay for the Criterion Collection, Ed Park says watching the long sequence (about a half hour) is "like listening to the seamless suite of miniatures on side two of Abbey Road." The scene is as good, if not better than anything Keaton or Chaplin ever managed, and the shot of Lloyd hanging from the clock is of the cinema's most indelible images. The only problem is that it's Lloyd's crowning moment, standing well above any of his other comic stunts. In contrast, to pick the best moment from Keaton or Chaplin's canon would be to get overwhelmed by the copious choices. 

Still, Safety Last! is a great piece of silent cinema on its own terms. And it almost seems unfair to compare it too closely with Chaplin and Keaton. Chaplin, after all, was recently called the Shakespeare of Cinema by The New Yorker's Richard Brody, while Roger Ebert considered Keaton to be one of the three greatest filmmakers of all time. Lloyd doesn't get the same attention, yet I don't think it's a case of being wrongfully neglected. He's simply not as good, yet he's good enough. And when one has rivals such as his, being good enough is perfectly fine.

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