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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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.