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Shelf Life: Harold Lloyd’s silent classic “Safety Last”

Shelf Life: Harold Lloyd’s silent classic “Safety Last” (photo)

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With the simultaneous release of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” in the past two weeks, audiences are discovering a whole world of entertainment that preceded the panoramic, 3D, stereoscopic experience they currently talk and text through: silent film. Apparently, for more than the first 30 years of filmmaking’s existence, Hollywood actually made movies that had no audible dialogue, and relied only upon actors’ expressions (and an occasional intertitle) to communicate what the heck was going on in the story. Consequently, it seemed appropriate to go back and try to dig up one of these old fossils and see if they could hold a candle to the emotional power (much less technical virtuosity) of today’s greatest films, such as Jack and Jill.

Harold Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, creating dozens of films that enchanted audiences with fun, romantic stories, and the occasional feat of derring-do. Though it’s little-seen in its entirety, the actor’s “Safety Last” not only ranks among his most famous films, but it offers one of the earliest iconic images of on-screen action, of Lloyd hanging precariously from a clock high above the street below. (The selfsame image was an obvious inspiration for Hugo’s poster.) With interest renewed in the delicate and beautiful art of silent filmmaking, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at one of its purported “classics,” “Safety Last” – but how high does it actually rank?


The Facts

Released on April 1, 1923, “Safety Last” was only Lloyd’s fourth feature-length film, but he’d already made almost 100 shorts, including a stunning 39 in 1919 alone. At the time of its release, it helped cement Lloyd as a star, and perhaps more significantly, one of the true fixtures of the silent era. A year later, Lloyd would part ways with his longtime collaborator (and “Safety Last” director) Hal Roach, and launched the Harold Lloyd Film Corporation, where he subsequently produced his own films. Meanwhile, the film maintains a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What Still Works

At 73 minutes, this little tale of an ambitious small town boy trying to make a name (and a fortune) for himself in the big city might seem too slight to leave an impression. But far beyond its iconic clock shot, “Safety Last” is a hugely entertaining, emotionally-involving story, anchored by Lloyd in the lead role. Having worked for more than a decade in silent by the time it was released, Lloyd had refined his too-smart-by-half screen persona to razor sharpness, and here he gets character out of one jam with as much dexterity as he gets him into another: propelled by his fiancee’s mistaken impression that he’s big and successful, the way he goes from department store clerk to human fly actually seems quite natural, and gives even its short running time epic scope. (Additionally, his physical dexterity on the side of the building, not just climbing but fully taking advantage of the building’s vertiginous heights, is a marvel of poetic motion.)

The great thing about the silent era was the way in which filmmakers were forced to communicate so much without the use of a lot of superfluous, expository dialogue, which arguably has made audiences lazier in the sound era. The storytelling itself is a marvel of economy, injecting jokes into the narrative (and a narrative into jokes) without adding unnecessary embellishments or digressions. For example, there’s a scene in which Lloyd’s character (also named Harold) meets a hometown friend who’s become a cop. In a moment of showing off, he tells his friend to play a prank on a police officer, but inadvertently picks the wrong cop, and while the gag is funny enough as a standalone set piece, it actually puts in motion Harold’s eventual climbing of the outside of his department store.

Meanwhile, Roach’s direction is similarly economical, although there are definitely some really clever, subtle flourishes that augment the humor where they might have played more obviously. For example, right before Harold’s friend Limpy is set to start climbing the building, the cop who’s after him shows up and starts snooping around. Lloyd races into action and leads the cop to a little shack, where he thinks he’ll lock him in, but there’s another door the cop exits through easily, and begins following Harold back to the store. While we see the cop behind Harold as he congratulates himself for his ingenuity, he doesn’t notice him until he starts noticing a shadow following his in perfect rhythm, and it’s a great, understated little revelation that gives the moment more emotional power – if only in terms of hilarity.

What Doesn’t Work

If there’s anything at all that could be faulted in “Safety Last”, it’s that perhaps by today’s standards the humor is occasionally a little broad – not quite the stuff of slipping on a banana peel, but just about. (All of which is nothing a film like jack and Jill would exploit.) Truthfully, I don’t find this problematic at all – there’s a gag in “An Eastern Westerner” where he literally pulls the rug out from under two of his pursuers, then turns a fire hydrant on full blast into a ballroom, and it floors me. But I think it’s rescued not just because of one’s penchant for sight gags or simple goofs, but because of the effective creation of character, and especially in “Safety Last”, you’re pulling for this guy, even if he survives literally by hanging from his fingertips.

The Verdict

“Safety Last” is a great film that remains entertaining and involving today, and has aged only because of its technical limitations. Otherwise, it’s fun, emotionally affecting, and absorbing in ways that quite frankly most modern movies aren’t. New Line’s 2005 box set features a wonderful transfer of that film as well as many other Lloyd classics, so make sure you check that out, because if you’re looking for someone to call “the artist,” you need look no further than him.

Leave your own memories of Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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