' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Safety Last! (1923)

Friday, November 01, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Safety Last! (1923)

“Here goes: a new Harold Lloyd is unthinkable because physical comedy depends on the proximity and possibility of death, which no longer seems acceptable to viewers who are completely aware of the prevalence of stunt doubles and digital effects, and who are repelled by the idea that a performer would actually face death for what is, after all, only a movie.” – Richard Brody, The New Yorker 

Watching the dramatic climax to 1924’s silent masterpiece “Safety Last!”, it’s just as easy to get caught up in what is going on far below as what is going on way up high. That is, you can see action taking place in the street in real time, pedestrians bustling, old-timey cars gargling along, all seemingly oblivious to The Boy – or Harold Lloyd, the actor – straddling the side of the Bolton Building by the pointy ends of his wingtips. It lends the sequence such authenticity that you will find yourself overwhelmed with concerned for his safety, as if an actual plummet awaits, as if we are watching a real life man cross the real life gorge above the real life Niagara Falls on a real life wire, which is more or less what is really happening. (Debate, it seems, continues regarding how much of this was Lloyd’s stunt double and how much of this was really Lloyd. Either way, it ain’t CGI.) At the end, when he gets his foot tangled up in a rope and goes over……woah. My stomach sunk. Then it rose. Because, of course, what actually awaits is not a plummet but – in the words of Planet Earth Poet Laureate Bruce Springsteen – a kiss from his baby’s lips.

The film’s apex and the shot of Lloyd dangling from the hands of the clock – a shot quoted (and seen) in other films, such as Martin Scorsese’s recent “Hugo” – is justifiably unforgettable, and yet what stands out to me the most in watching the whole film for the first time is its continuous commitment to physical comedy. But the physical comedy isn’t all such colossally high stakes, scaling buildings and such, it is very much rooted in the every day, and that lends it this brilliant sensation that every day for The Boy (and for all of us, really) is a struggle.

Consider the opening sequence, wherein The Boy is set to depart his small town and his dearly beloved (Mildred Davis) to strike it rich in the big city. To get to the big city he needs to hop the train. Except merely hopping the train turns into an epic ordeal. Later, in the big city, making it on time to his clerking job at a woman’s department store goes from easy-peasy to a comedy of errors. These are all set pieces, of course, deftly timed, skillfully acted, and quite funny, yet they also demonstrate The Boy’s desire to make something of himself and keep his word to his sweetheart. (Well, maybe that bit of business with the cop he used to know and is clumsily inserted to set up for later isn't, but never mind that! Nothing to see here! Please disperse!)

Ah yes, the word to his sweetheart. What is true love if not deception and an old-fashioned ruse or two? For The Boy has led The Girl to believe he’s in the money, sending her expensive jewelry in lieu of buying himself a warm meal and inflating his precise position within the company. So, when she arrives unannounced in the store, he has to make like it’s his store, and when the real boss throws an offer of $1,000 to anyone that can successfully drum up a solid marketing campaign, he sees the chance to set things right without her ever realizing they were wrong. Which leads him to scaling the building for a bit of daredevil publicity.

In that way, “Safety Last” is a bit like my favorite episode of “Seinfeld”, in which Jerry re-races a race from his past, a race that he only won on account of unintentionally nefarious means, and which he wins again on account of unintentionally nefarious means. That is to say, he merely furthers a lie. And that’s what The Boy is doing as he scales the building – furthering a lie. Then again, the plan calls for another man to climb the building, the man who earlier runs afoul of the cop, which leads to all sorts of monkey business and, eventually, requisitely, The Boy making the climb in the hopes that he only needs to go one story for the other man to take over in an impersonation of The Boy. Needless to say, this plan fails, and The Boy is required to make the entire climb.

Call it, his necessary comeuppance. And perhaps that is why we can excuse his many little (to medium) white lies. He lies only because he loves The Girl, and he climbs the building only because he loves The Girl, and because the real-life Lloyd and the real-life Davis were real-life husband & wife (and remained so) you can even go so far as to say the real-life Lloyd was risking life and limb only because he loved Davis. Maybe that’s irresponsibility too? But love is a lot of things. Some people will say it is the feeling of safety with the person you love.

The Boy simply wants to provide that safety for The Girl (though perhaps in a Kathryn Bigelow film she could have gone and got it for herself) and to achieve it he must first put his safety last.

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