Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and the Triumph of Silent Film

The Orpheum Marquee: Harold Lloyd ... Robert Israel ... and Hugh Hefner. Only in L.A. 😉

Wow. So the best cinematic experiences I’ve had in recent memory tend to have the same thing in common: silence. First with the TCM Festival’s triumphant screening of Buster Keaton‘s The Cameraman in April. And now two months later, with the Los Angeles Conservancy’s closing night film of their 25th Annual “Last Remaining Seats” series, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last.

For the uninitiated, the “Last Remaining Seats” series is a fantastic event each summer in which the Los Angeles Conservancy, LA’s foremost historical preservation society, opens the doors of Downtown LA’s movie palaces to the general public with a series of classic film screenings. It is an extraordinary event and its evergreen– indeed, ever growing– popularity is a true testament to the fact that audiences will always love the old-fashioned joy of a night at the movies. Because “Last Remaining Seats” is all about old-fashioned joy. These palaces were built as veritable escape portals for the masses– with their gilded halls and plush velour, where even the grimiest working Joe could, for an hour or so, feel like royalty.

And boy, did we ever feel like that tonight!

The majestic Orpheum interior

Having missed last year’s schedule completely, I was not about to miss this– even a lingering cold did not foil my plans! Tonight’s screening was greeted to an enthusiastic crowd– a large majority of which had never seen a silent feature film before in their life.  I know because renowned silent film composer Robert Israel, providing the night’s accompaniment, asked for applause from any silent film first-timers– the applause was rather verbose.

Keaton’s charming short Cops was the appetizer, followed up by crowd-pleasing pre-show in the spirit of Sid Grauman‘s famous prologues of the ’20s. The Cicada Club is a downtown Los Angeles world unto it’s own: a tangible time glitch where dames in fringe dresses and faux fur with fellas in tailored tuxes and top hats put on the ritz every Sunday night to the vintage croons of Ben Halpern and orchestral swing of Dean Moira. The Cicada set may have its cliques (vintage purists who happen to wear blue jeans, like me, don’t exactly fit)  but oh can they put on a show! The club’s proprietor Maxwell DeMille presided over the high-spirited prologue which included a hot Charleston number and some delightful standards, from “Singin’ in the Rain” to “California Here I Come!”

Film historian John Bengtson‘s recent book Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd is the third in a series of books that are, truly, cinematic archaeology: meticulously unearthing the filming locations of the great silent comedians to create a detailed composite of a city on the come. It was fitting that he took the stage with Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne, to introduce the film, it’s Los Angeles-centric importance, and the movie-like backstory that surrounded it’s production. (Lloyd married his leading lady just before the picture wrapped.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen Safety Last many a time and have always liked it and admired Lloyd’s physical prowess. But I have always preferred Lloyd’s Girl Shy and The Freshman (with their respective Robert Israel scores, of course) and, while I appreciate the film’s significance, it was never a favorite.

Well, scratch that last.

This film was made for the big screen in every possible sense. The audience literally screamed with both laughter and fright, a deliriously thin line, at Lloyd’s aerial antics– the ferociousness of which simply cannot be truly appreciated on the confines of a television screen. Safety Last is, first and foremost, a MOVIE: intended to be projected on a 20 foot screen and was made for those towering dimensions.

My palms were sweating and fingernails were bitten– even though the outcome was as plain on the nose on my face. It was simply … magic.

The audience’s verbal reaction only intensified the experience. Even when paying 20 smackers for the latest 3D extravaganza, it is very very rare to have an audience so intimately, totally, completely immersed with the film. Ever move Harold made, every slip of the foot, even the most blatantly obvious of set pieces, elicited a gut reaction. Ooohs, Aaaah, Nooos and Eeeeks screamed from the balcony and orchestra seats.

We. Were. His.

And I wonder what it all means. In this unappreciative era of instant information and unearned entitlement, when we are so completely jaded and rarely impressed at the movies… how truly meaningful is it that a silent film, 80+ years old, without gimmicky camera trickery or CGI imagery can make our hearts beat right out of it’s cages and our palms sweat like no Michael Bay extravaganza could ever hope to.

The purity of silent film triumphs once again.

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

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Film writer and social media marketing professional. 2019 Social Ambassador for the 10th Annual TCM Classic Film Festival. Previously: social media associate at Warner Archive and script writer for Turner Classic Movies. Working on a Montgomery Clift biography due late 2020.

5 thoughts on “Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and the Triumph of Silent Film

  1. As you observed first-hand, no “acquired taste” is necessary for Keaton or Lloyd. What they did is just as impressive now (maybe more) as it was back then. They did stunts in 1920 that only experienced stunt people would attempt today and probably with alot more safety precautions. If I remember correctly, though, Lloyd lost part of his hand in an explosion and Keaton broke a neck bone not diagnosed until many years later — do you think their production companies carried insurance? Probably not!

    1. Thanks AK! Yes I did, and although I would just looooove to take credit, truth is an iPhone app called Instagram did all the work. 😉

  2. Sounds like a wonderful evening! Although, not quite as ornate as the Orpheum, I did catch Safety Last, along with the Robert Israel Orchestra, 2 years ago at the first TCM Festival. I had the same reaction. Even though I had seen the film before on video, it was entirely different and much grander experience seeing it projected on the large Egyptian screen. I wish the LA Conservancy would expand their screenings to be year round and maybe even add a weekend screening. Here’s hoping.

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