As we move through the decade of the 2020s, each year is now bringing a bumper crop of 100th anniversaries of great films worth celebrating—and screening, too!
For the still-new year of 2023, chief among the titles celebrating a centennial is Harold Lloyd's thrill comedy 'Safety Last.'
In the coming months, I'll accompany more than a few screenings of this film—the first of which is this weekend, on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.
As stated in the press release (which is pasted in below, and has all the details), the film is well-known even among people who've never seen any of Lloyd's work.
That's a result, I suspect, of a single iconic image (see above), which over the decades has come to symbolize the "anything for a laugh" school of comedy that supposedly prevailed in the silent era.
And that's unfortunate—not just because it's incorrect, but it also shortchanges a wonderfully realized comedy that has a lot more going for it than just a guy hanging from a minute-hand.
What I mean from that is captured in some thoughts I posted seven years ago, in which I compared 'Safety Last' to Beethoven's 5th Symphony, of all things.
But with Safety Last turning 100, I think they're worth bringing up again. Here goes!
From Jan. 24, 2016...
With me, when I ponder 'Safety Last,' I often think of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. You know? Da da da DUMMM!
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 DUMMM, right?
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 DUMMM.
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 DUMM. They were actually made to a very high standard, designed to be experienced by a large audience, and still work like gangbusters when shown as intended.
So there! I hope that's enough to encourage you to venture out the the venerable (and venture-able, too!) Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. and join us for a screening of 'Safety Last' on Sunday, Jan. 15. More details in the press release below.
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TUESDAY, DEC. 27, 2022 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Town Hall Theatre to celebrate 100th anniversary of silent film classic 'Safety Last'
Thrill comedy climaxed by Harold Lloyd's iconic building climb; matinee screening with live music on Sunday, Jan. 15
WILTON, N.H.—It's a cinematic image so powerful, people who've never seen the movie instantly recognize it.
The vision of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a huge clock, from the climax of his silent comedy 'Safety Last,' (1923), has emerged as a symbol of early Hollywood and movie magic.
Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the film's original release with a screening of 'Safety Last' on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.
Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person at each screening is suggested to help defray expenses.
The screening will feature live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis.
His career at a downtown department store stalls, however, until he gets a chance to pitch a surefire publicity idea—hire a human fly to climb the building's exterior.
But when the human fly has a last-minute run-in with the law, Harold is forced to make the climb himself, floor by floor, with his sweetheart looking on.
The result is an extended sequence filmed without trick photography that blends comedy and terror, holding viewers spellbound.
Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, is regarded as one of the silent screen's three great clowns.
Lloyd's character, an ambitious young man ready to struggle to win the day, proved hugely popular in the 1920s.
While Chaplin and Keaton were always favored by the critics, Lloyd's films reigned as the top-grossing comedies throughout the period.
Silent film at the Town Hall Theatre gives today's audiences the chance to experience early cinema as it was intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience.
"Put the whole experience back together, and you can see why people first fell in love with the movies," said Rapsis, who practices the nearly lost art of live silent film accompaniment.
Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra, creating a traditional "movie score" sound.
"Seeing 'Safety Last' with an audience is one of the great thrill rides of the cinema of any era, silent or sound," Rapsis said. "Harold's iconic building climb, filmed without trick photography, continues to provoke audience responses nearly 100 years after film was first released."
Tributes to the clock-hanging scene have appeared in several contemporary films, most recently in Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' (2011), which includes clips from 'Safety Last.'
Celebrate the 100th anniversary of Harold Lloyd's iconic thrill comedy 'Safety Last' (1923) with a screening on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H.
Admission is free; a donation of $10 per person at each screening is suggested to help defray expenses. For more information, call the theater at (603) 654-3456.
CRITIC COMMENTS ON ‘SAFETY LAST’:
"Impossible to watch without undergoing visitations of vertigo, Safety Last's climactic sequence is all it's reputed to be.”
"Harold Lloyd manages to make the characters sympathetic enough to carry the audience's concern on his journey of crazy stunts and mishaps. One of the best of this era."
—David Parkinson, Empire Magazine
"The climb has both comic and dramatic weight because it is both a thrilling exercise in physical humor and a thematically rich evocation of the pressures men feel to succeed, lest they be viewed as less than a man."
—James Kendrick, Q Network Film Desk