Safety Last (1923) & The Freshman (1925)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in One-Man Show | 0 comments


Disclaimer: I know I said this for Keaton already, but don’t try this at home, kids.

When it comes to silent comedy stars, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd are often referred to as “the big three,” but nowadays it couldn’t be more of a misnomer. Most know nothing of Lloyd or his excellent cinematic bibliography, which from Grandma’s Boy to Speedy was in some ways the most impressive of any star of the time. Perhaps most disappointing is that most people have seen the famous clock-dangling gag, though not the artist that risked his life creating it.

While Chaplin was a tramp with a moustache and cane, and Keaton a stone-face with a porkpie hat, Lloyd carried a pair of glasses and a smile. His young and eager nerdy outsider (often named Harold) faced tremendous obstacles in his goal of achieving the American dream and getting the girl. Without him Superman would have no alter ego and the protagonists of Dumb and Dumber no namesakes.

Though not credited as such, Lloyd dictated much of the writing for the stories and gags in his films. He has the funniest title cards of the three, and his stories are closer to the working class lives of his viewers. “Lloyd depended more on story and situation than any of the other major comedians,” James Agee wrote in his piece Comedy’s Greatest Era, “and kept the best stable of gagmen in Hollywood, at one time hiring six.”

His lesser gags include accidentally Lloyd3lighting his butt on fire, creatively hiding (on horses, coat racks, mannequins, etc.), doing funny stuff with cats, and making humorous inventions. But like Keaton, Lloyd’s best gags were stunts that ran the risk of bodily harm. (In fact, an explosive accident early in his career left him without a thumb and forefinger on his right hand, and he remarkably pulled off all his stunts afterward without them.) The best is featured in Safety Last (in my opinion, his greatest film).

In it, Harold must move to a big city and work at a department store to save enough money for he and his gal to buy a home. The first few reels have Harold barely scraping by, and comic sequences in which he must race back to work on time, deal with aggressive female shoppers during a sale, and play the hotshot when his lady comes to visit. It really picks up when the boss offers $1,000 for a big publicity stunt and Harold volunteers his roommate to scale the 12-story building. When the day comes, however, the gag is that Harold must start the stunt himself with the intention of having the roommate pick up on the next floor, but the gag forces him to go all the way to the top, encountering humorous pratfalls along the way (nets, pigeons, mice, windows, a weathervane). But none is more exciting than the clock.

“A good deal of (Safety Last) hangs by its eyelashes along the face of a building,” Agee wrote. “Each new floor is like a new stanza in a poem; and the higher and more horrifying it gets, the funnier it gets. In this movie Lloyd demonstrates beautifully his ability to do more than merely milk a gag, but to top it.” This is one of the most famous comedy stunts of all time, and one of the most exciting scenes in silent cinema (after Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps).

Perhaps equally well known in Lloyd’s  filmography is The Freshman, in which the 31 year-old enters his first year in college. He spends all his free time in his room reciting game chants and fight songs, reading yearbooks and football rules, and mastering a goofy handshake from a movie about college (an ongoing gag). With kids constantly concerned with “fitting in,” The Freshman’s gags are perfectly convenient. He tries out for the football team and becomes the tackling dummy, ends up buying ice cream for everyone on campus, and even hosts the fall dance.

The film’s best scene involves the tailor barely having enough time to finish Harold’s suit for the dance, then going along in case of an emergency. Well, of course, there are several, as seemingly every move Harold makes causes another seam to burst open and the tailor must secretly patch them. As the charade continues to build, it climaxes with an embarrassing clothing explosion. The only way for Harold to bounce back is by winning the big game in a hilarious Rudy-esque sequence later mimicked by The Marx Brothers.

Lloyd made a few other fantastic films, Lloyd2notably Grandma’s Boy (whose Civil War charm sequence is gut-busting) and The Kid Brother (whose opening clothesline chase is a classic). Indeed Lloyd amassed nearly 200 films from 1914 to 1947, far more than Chaplin or Keaton combined. When it came time for the talkies, Lloyd submitted, “I do not believe the public will want spoken comedy. Motion pictures and the spoken arts are two distinct arts.” But, of course, viewers did want talkies and it eventually pushed Lloyd out of popularity. “His comic type simply became obsolete after The Crash. The aggressive values he had embodied in the giddy twenties seemed downright irresponsible in the hung-over thirties,” Andrew Sarris wrote in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.

Not only did the talkies oust Lloyd, but time, it seems, hasn’t favored him nearly as much as Keaton or Chaplin. (And I hate to think of the percentage of people that have heard of the likes of Langdon.) It’s a shameful fact that hopefully will be alleviated in the next hundred years, though it’s not likely.

“If great comedy must involve something beyond laughter, Lloyd was not a great comedian,” Agee wrote, drawing the obvious comparison to masters Chaplin and Keaton. “But if plain laughter is any criterion, few people have equaled him, and nobody has ever beaten him.”

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