Thursday, May 26, 2016

Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor | Safety Last!

misreading the story
by Douglas Messerli

Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, and Tim Whelan (writers), Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor (directors)

Safety Last! / 1923

Harold Lloyd’s great silent film, Safety Last!, begins with what appears to be a prison scene, with “The Boy” (Lloyd) seemingly behind bars, being comforted by what appears to a mother-in-law and his wife. A somber looking priest-like figure soon shows up with a man who looks like a prison official. A noose hangs in the foreground. 
      Suddenly the four front figures disappear temporarily from the screen, reappearing next to the apparent “prisoner” behind bars. As the camera pulls out, however, we perceive that we had misread the scene, discovering that the sad-looking man is merely standing behind a gate of a train station, and the “noose” is a trackside pickup loop. Our hero is not truly in prison, but is about to leave his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) for a career in the city, promising to get married when he has made it “good.”
      Of course, the scene has also served as a kind a metaphor based on the old jokes about marriage signifying the end of freedom and a kind of spiritual death. And that metaphor underlies many of the disastrous scenes of The Boy’s life, as the bespectacled character faces the vagaries of city living. Shacking up in a small room with another work, The Pal (“Limpy Bill, played by Bill Strother), the two men have not even money to pay the rent. Although Lloyd has found a job working at the De Vore Department Store, he spends nearly all of his wages on a lavaliere and, later, a chain to send back to his small town girlfriend, while writing her daily letters declaring his love and success.

      Like Chaplain and Keaton, however, the truth of his life is expressed in a series of hapless events. Arriving early to work, The Boy is accidentally carried away by a service truck, and must hurry back across the city through a number of unfortunate conveyances to arrive back at work on time; he fails, and must sneak into the store in order not to lose his job. Most of his troubles are connected with the snooty and slightly dandified Floorwalker (Wescott Clarke), who watches over his charges with critical glares. The women customers who visit his department that sells rolls of cloth presumably to be made into dresses are equally demanding and presumptive, as we note in one scene when a woman demands to see roll after roll before returning to the first and asking only for a small, sample cut. During a sale, the shoppers gather round like competitors for a prize creating near chaos for the young salesman.
       Even somewhat pleasant experiences, such as The Boy’s encounter of a policeman, once a hometown friend of his, ends badly, when Lloyd, bragging to his roommate that he has influence with the police department, suggests Bill knock the policeman backwards while using a callbox. Without knowing, his friend has been replaced by another policeman, and the action results in a wild chase, wherein, to escape, Bill miraculously climbs the outer shell of an office building. 
      The Boy’s continual lies to his girlfriend back home assures both mother and daughter that he is doing so well in city life that Mildred should take the train to join him. When she shows up at the store, The Boy is forced to pretend that he is the general manager, temporarily using the manager’s empty office to impress her. But the accidental pushing of several buttons brings legions of others into the office, including the flustered Floorwalker, requiring that Lloyd, hiding his face behind a paper, issue orders, insisting the Floorwalker leave The Boy alone!
      When Mildred, meanwhile, leaves her purse in the office, further problems arise, but he does, at least, overhear a conversation between the general manager and a publicist about a plan to draw large crowds into the store. The Boy offers up his services for the $1,000 fee, wilily planning to use the building-climbing talents of his Pal. Thousands are attracted to the event, but when the policeman who had previously chased Bill gets wind of the plan, he awaits in revenge, and The Boy is himself forced to begin the climb, with Bill promising to change roles with him on the second floor.


     Slowly—representing the longest scene of the film—Lloyd begins the climb, but at each floor the policeman catches up with Bill, and The Boy is forced to move upward. The amazing realism of the scene as he makes his way to the top,  the crowds and busy streets below growing smaller and smaller, is perhaps one the grand moments of early cinema history. In reality Lloyd dangled only three stories from the ground upon which a mattress was placed. But Lloyd had already lost a thumb and forefinger in a previous stunt, and death even from three storeys was still quite possible. 
      The most memorable moment of the long climb, as Martin Scorcese reminded us in his tribute to filmmaking, Hugo, is when clinging to a clock near the very top, the workings of the clock pull away, with the helpless climber attached, as if he was literally fighting with time against he certain demise. Ultimately he does win out, and rises to the top, but even there is threatened to be tumbled into space by a windcock. 
      Yet our hero achieves the impossible, now surely able to face whatever real imprisonments and delimitations that marriage might bring.
       In fact, Lloyd soon after married his heroine in real life; but, as it is all too common, it was her acting career that came to an end.

Los Angeles, May 24, 2013

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