Thursday, June 20, 2013

#662: Safety Last!

(Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)

For some reason I had never seen a Harold Lloyd film in full until I finally got around to Safety Last this week. This is not the case with Woody Allen, who clearly knows this film and Lloyd's character the Glass (whose name in the movie really is Harold Lloyd) extremely well. In fact, as much as I immediately fell in love with the humor and suspense of the film, what I was really blown away by was how much of Woody Allen's style had been influenced by Lloyd.

This might seem surprising to the casual viewer, as Allen is generally known as a verbal comedian most obviously influenced by Groucho Marx (with a perhaps more unabashedly Jewish intellectual bend - I mean this in a good way, btw). But in reality, Allen's work has always had a strong visual component, from his first film, Take the Money and Run, where Allen plays cello in a marching band (think about it) to his best films like Manhattan where Allen casually reaches into the pond in Central Park and pulls out a fistful of muck. These jokes share a clever playfulness and self-deprecating tone that isn't present in Chaplin's wistful musings or Keaton's set pieces - often dedicated to their creator's ingenuity rather than his clumsiness - but is all over Lloyd's style here. Allen's affectations, too, often seem directly lifted from the earlier actor: his knowing looks at the audience, his anxiety around impressing women, his loving jabs at women too stuffy or men too brutish - all these behaviors are manifested in Safety Last and throughout Allen's career. For a huge Woody Allen fan like myself, this discovery was quite significant.

Fortunately, Safety Last is so good that it would be impossible for it to be totally overshadowed. This is undeniably one of the towering classics of the silent comedy era. Similar to (the greatest of them all) The General, it also works as a suspenseful adventure as well, especially in the last sequence, which is impossible to avoid getting wrapped up in. It's funny how Hollywood can spend $200 million on cartoons fighting each other in space as explosions go off around them and one guy climbing a building 90 years ago can be far more suspenseful and thrilling - but here I go getting old man on everybody!

What I really love about Safety Last ultimately are the little things - the gags and winks to the audience that are the true genius of the film, surrounded by an elementary plot and awkward devices that would be at home in a Mickey Mouse cartoon (the forced way the film gets Lloyd's friend set up as wanted by the police is maybe the best example). These gems range from Lloyd straightening his hair using his (superimposed) reflection on a bald man's head to the clever way in which Lloyd's name is incorporated into the film. Keaton was perhaps the master of using the medium as a tool in his joke kit, but Safety Last makes it clear that this sensibility was very much established across the silent era.

Criterion has always been dedicated to silent cinema, as indicated by its early releases of masterpieces like Nanook of the North and The Passion of Joan of Arc. But recent years have seen a redoubling of this dedication, most notably with their impeccable Von Sternberg boxset and their Chaplin acquisitions but also with relatively lesser-known gems like Lonesome and The Phantom Carriage. Safety Last may be their most significant recent silent release, though, simply because it walks the line between the iconic status of Chaplin's work (which of course was never in danger of being forgotten) and the artistic ingenuity of Lonesome (which is nevertheless a more minor film). It's just the kind of movie Criterion was created to release.

Two side notes about the cover: 1)Though a lot of work probably went into certain elements, my guess is that few covers have had as unquestionable an image selection as this one - there were simply no other reasonable options. 2) Is this the only cover in the collection that does not feature the name of the director of the film? edit: just thought of one - The Game. But still, it's pretty rare.

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