Thursday, January 14, 2021

The NFR Project: 'Safety Last!'


Safety Last!

Dir: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Scr: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, H.M. Walker, Jean C. Havez, Harold Lloyd

Phot: Walter Lundin

Ed: Thomas J. Crizer

Premiere: April 1, 1923

73 min.

You can find Richard W. Bann’s excellent explanatory essay here.

Safety Last! Is Harold Lloyd’s most emblematic film, his best remembered work. The film’s resonant image of a dangling man clinging frantically to the hands of an outsized clock is still burned into the memories of filmgoers.

Lloyd is always listed third in the pantheon of great silent-film comics, after Chaplin and Keaton. But Lloyd was more prolific than either of the other two, and arguably more popular at the time. He started out an aspiring comic actor in roles that were notably imitative of other more successful comic personalities. For some time, Lloyd sought out a unique and popular character he could play.

Finally his comic persona cemented itself around 1918, when the simple expedient of wearing glasses gave him the look of a soft-hearted underdog. Under this bespectacled veneer he crafted a peppy, optimistic character who, film after film, overcame all manner of absurd obstacles in order to achieve success.

Safety Last! uses that template, and adds the thrill of watching our hero climb the side of a tall building. This kind of “thrill comedy,” a potent mixture of stunts and laughs, proved to be the winning formula for Lloyd.

In Safety Last! Harold is a small-town guy going to the big city, promising to send for his girl once he’s made it big there. He tells her he’s become the general manager of a big department store, when in fact he is only a lowly clerk there. When she surprises him with a visit, he concocts a scheme to get rich quick with his friend, a “human fly,” asking him to climb the store’s building. Unfortunately, the friend is chased by the police, leaving Harold to climb the building himself.

The final sequence is gripping. Adroitly edited, it plays the efforts of Lloyd and his stunt double to maximum effect. The filmmakers also worked with tricks of perspective, building a skyscraper set that only looked like it towered over the street below. Overcoming the absurd obstacles in his way (pigeons, a mouse, netting), Harold reaches the top, his love, and success. Not a bad formula for the filmgoing public to fall for.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Salome (1923).




Thursday, January 7, 2021

The NFR Project: Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III


Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III

Premiere: 1922

5:41 min.

This interesting snippet of film chronicles just a part of the effort to produce movies in color. James Layton’s comprehensive essay on the footage can be found here.

The quest to make films in color took many years to succeed. Here, Kodak laboratories created an early “two-strip” color film using red and green filters. Merging the two separate filters into one, something like color resulted (although it required intense, hot lighting and could not capture the cooler parts of the spectrum). Pictured in the test footage are various models and actresses, posing to test the new medium.

This early “Kodachrome” did not catch on. It was the Technicolor process that eventually won out, and it was not until 1935’s Becky Sharp that a feature-length color film was made with it.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Safety Last! (1923).

Monday, November 23, 2020

The NFR Project: 'Sky High'

 Sky High

Dir: Lynn Reynolds

Scr: Lynn Reynolds

Phot: Benny Kline

Ed: unknown

Premiere: January 15, 1922

60 min.

It’s damn near impossible nowadays to understand how big a star Tom Mix was. He made hundreds of Westerns during his career and was dubbed “The King of the Cowboys.” On film, he could beat up a bad hombre, wrassle a critter, recover the gold, win the heart of a lady, and engage in wild stunts, all with a winning grin. He rode Tony the Wonder Horse. He was cowboy as superhero.

Mix wasn’t an actor who took on the Western genre. Mix was a product of the West, a real cowboy who wandered in front of a movie camera and became a star. He really could ride and rope and shoot.

Mix grew up wanting to join the circus. He rattled around the country for a few years, working at everything from cowboying and rodeo competition to Wild West shows to bartending to serving as a lawman. Eventually he went with an outfit that supplied horses and extras to Hollywood moviemakers. In 1909, Mix began a film career that lasted until 1935.

He knew that they key to success was, for him, action and plenty of it. Before Mix, the premier film cowboy was the melancholy loner plated by the hulking, poker-faced William S. Hart. His moody works elevated Westerns to tragic status, often melodramas about bad men who turn good.

But Mix was a good guy from the start, an upstanding hero who could always be counted upon to save the day. He was cheerful and had a sense of humor. He wore gaudy, overstylized garments. His adventures were family-friendly, something kids and adults could both enjoy. His appeal was universal.

So he spun out film after film, charging through the ins and outs of the action film, Western-style. His approach recast the conventions of the movie Western. Feats of derring-do and last-minute rescues were carried over into the Mix films, just as the dime novels, stage acts, and Wild West shows had outlined before film.

Sky High features Mix as Grant Newberry, Deputy Inspector of Immigration. The movie opens with a scene of him thwarting illegal immigrants – in this case, Chinese men whom he treats none too respectfully, in keeping with the casual racism of the era. Then there’s bright young thing Estelle, whose guardian is the secret head of the smuggling ring. Did I mention the Chinese are being smuggled in through the Grand Canyon? Well, they are.

This turns the location into a grandiose movie backdrop. The novelty of shooting the Canyon is exploited to its fullest, with action sequences taking place within and above it (Mix dropping from an airplane into the Colorado River is an elegantly faked bit). The hero does almost all his own stunts.

The cowboy films of the era usually leaned on the tropes of the melodrama – hero, villain, damsel in distress. This formula served the Western well, and thrives in Mix’s work. In the nearly 300 films he made, Tom wears the white hat, gets the bad guy, wins the girl. In simpler times, that was more than enough.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Kodachrome Two-Color Test Shots Number III.