Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last' shares
with Ludwig van Beethoven's Fifth Symphony

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, I'm doing live music for a screening of Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last' (1923) at a new venue for me.

It's the Portsmouth Music Hall Loft, 131 Congress St. in downtown Portsmouth, N.H. Show time is 7 p.m. and admission is $15 per person.

It's the opening program in a film series hosted by Kent Stephens that aims to explore cinematic comedy as it evolves through the 20th century.

Kind of a last-minute addition to my schedule. But I'm glad to do it because:

1. 'Safety Last' is a great film for live music, which can make a big difference in how an audience experiences Lloyd's blend of comedy and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

2. The Music Hall is where I first heard the Alloy Orchestra, to a screening of Keaton's 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.' (1928) sometime in the 1990s. This pushed me in the direction of taking up the craft myself.

Kent will talk about Lloyd and the comedy of 'Safety Last,' so I'll leave that to him.

With me, when I ponder 'Safety Last,' I often think of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. You know? Da da da DUUUMMMMMM!

Which prompts the question: What does a Jazz Age romantic comedy have in common with one the sternest, most serious pieces of classical music ever written?

Well, as with so much, it's personal. So forgive me as I briefly succumb to that malaise of middle age: the reminiscence.

I first got interested in silent film as a kid in the 1970s. At the time, if you really wanted to see silent film, you had to get the actual films and run them yourself.

Many were available (in 16mm and 8mm) from the public library, or could be ordered from Blackhawk Films of Davenport, Iowa, which I did.

And so I explored and learned about the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, of Buster Keaton, and so many others. Little by little, I came to understand the world of 1920s cinema.

But the films of one person were missing: Harold Lloyd. You could see some of his early short films, but all the big classic features just weren't available.

Of course I could read about Lloyd's films. In books, he was often labeled a "thrill" comedian in passages that were inevitably accompanied by the famous image at the top of this post.

Here it is again:

And that was that. As far as I knew, Lloyd was rooted in the frentic "anything for a laugh" school of comedy, as epitomized by that one photo, used over and over again.

Why was he hanging from a clock? There couldn't be any possible reason other than he was just trying to get laughs by being outrageous.

And that was my image of Lloyd for quite awhile.

At the same time (junior high school), I was beginning to explore the works of the great composers.

All along, I had known what Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was all about: da da da DUUUMMMMMM, right?

But to my adolescent ears, it came as a a major discovery that 40 minutes of music followed: music that explored a vast emotional landscape ranging from the deepest valleys of despair to the highest summits of ecstacy.

I recall it was an RCA recording of Fritz Reiner leading the Chicago Symphony on an LP that was very "close-miked," meaning the voice of each instrument was clear and distinct, as opposed to the general sonic blur you sometimes get from an orchestra in a concert hall.

It was unlike anything I had ever heard before. And it was big news to find out all of what came after DUUUMMMMMM.

The same thing happened with 'Safety Last.' After years of thinking of the film as just an excuse for Lloyd to go stunting willy-nilly on a tall building, I finally got to see the entire film. (This happened when the Lloyd films were shown on Public Television in the late 1970s.)

Just as with Beethoven, a whole world opened up to me. Turns out Lloyd wasn't just a clock-hanger! His films had plots, character, settings, and finely honed gag sequences that brought the art of visual comedy to places I had never seen before.

And 'Safety Last' wasn't just a flimsy excuse for Lloyd to do stunts on a building. No! It was laid out with a certain inexorable logic that leaves Lloyd's character no choice but to climb the building, floor by increasingly vertiginous floor, while frightened silly the whole way.

And as he does it, the film's story virtually requires us to root for him. And when he finally reaches the clockface—the one I'd seen in that picture so many times—the reaction generated is the result of all that has gone on before it.

I couldn't believe how well done it was. I finally knew how Lloyd came to hanging from that clockface, and it made all the sense in the world.

It also helped me begin to understand why Lloyd was so popular in the 1920s. His films were a lot more than da da da DUUUMMMMMM. They were atually of a very high standard, designed to be experienced by a large audience, and still work like gangbusters when shown as intended.

That's what I'm looking forward to happening on Tuesday night, so hope you can join us!

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