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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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