Thursday, October 27, 2005

Safety Last!

Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française, liked to say that if cinema hadn't been born mute, there never would have been such a thing as cinematic art. I just learned that little piece of trivia today and, having seen Safety Last! (1923) yesterday, I know that he was right.

The story is simple, the cinematography is for the most part unremarkable, and the intertitled dialogue is almost nonexistant, but somehow the three combine to form a movie far funnier and more compelling than I ever thought a silent movie could be. In a story that is basically just a long set-up for the main gag of having Harold Lloyd climb the façade of a 12-story building, I frequently found myself losing myself in the affairs of the characters, in spite of the fact that I never even heard the sound of their voices.

Although there are intertitles supplying some key dialogue, the story is driven mostly by pantomime. Normally, the physical humor of the brand used by most silent films can seem - by no fault of their own - a little worn. After all, Looney Tunes made a living plundering all of those jokes and selling them to me when I was still wearing short pants; just because these old black and white movies are the real deal doesn't stop the humor from coming off a bit stale. Nonetheless, Lloyd's crazy antics inspired real laughter. He's simply such a superb comic actor that none of his performance seemed anything short of real and his work still feels very fresh and original. Even the ridiculous third act in which he climbs to the roof of his department store was incredibly evocative, inspiring gasps and squirming discomfort with every single brush with death.

It's easy to tell a story with spoken words. The sound takes the focus off the events on-screen; it takes pressure off of the visual aspect of the film, because the spectator can look away and still be fairly sure of what he/she will find when he/she looks back. With only the musical score that accompanied all silent film screenings - thus making the term "silent film" something of a misnomer - the spectator had to keep his/her eyes on the screen, or, rather, the director and the actors had to work much harder to keep the audience's interest. Most contemporary comedic actors could not achieve today in sound cinema the kind of emotional investment and interest in the characters that Harold Lloyd accomplished without a line of single spoken dialogue. Those that can, owe their skills to Lloyd - and contemporaries such as Charlie Chaplin - who fashioned film performance into an art before sound could come along and encourage everyone to give their eyes a rest and let their ears take the wheel.


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