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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Harold Lloyd's Perfect Vision

Here's an eye-opener to demonstrate then and now of classics revived. Criterion's just-released Safety Last! Blu-Ray has among extras a fine documentary on Harold Lloyd, The Third Genius, produced in 1989. It opens with Safety Last! and Harold on the clock, footage authorized by the Lloyd estate. There was every reason to figure this a best the film could ever look, outside 35mm in a theatre.  The 1989/2013 contrast, however, is night and day, like before-aft "restoration comparisons" on studio-released DVD's, only more so. We could watch Safety Last! now and regret lifetimes peeking through comparative murk, or be thankful to have windows thrown open at last. It's worth a ninety-year wait, my own maybe half that, dreaming as I did from beginner book and Blackhawk days that Safety Last! might be attainable. Viewing on 16mm bootleg and even Lloyd-licensed DVD pale in decrepitude beside what's here now: a Safety Last! so flawless it's almost intimidating.

The Rex Theatre in Beloit, Wisconsin Goes All Out For Harold

A question occurs: Could there be anyone watching Criterion's Blu-Ray that really has waited the whole of ninety-years? --- a pic-goer from 1923 seeing it crisp as when on nitrate? We're closing in on no survivors from Safety's first-run, there being about as many left as LA streets unchanged since Harold staged action thereon and gave us by far a best visual record of what life was like in sunny paradise. Watching last night, I felt empowered to break a fourth wall to 1923, something dreamt of often enough, but never so near fulfillment as here, such participation in an old film not experienced by me since Paramount got out Wings on Blu-Ray last year. Sharpness here is beyond aging eyesight's capacity to absorb (would I have seen it even clearer twenty years ago?), which is to say that if Safety Last! looked any better, we'd need to go back with HL on location sites to experience it.

Day Two For "Seven
Screaming Reels"
Will Safety Last! and forthcoming Lloyds propel him to a top of the triumvirate so far rehabbed to Blu-Ray? There remains HL, Chaplin, and Keaton forever on musical chairs, their sharper images also sharpening comparison and debate as to who's preferred. Everyone below their tier seems doomed to standard definition; Harry Langdon, for instance, far less likely to get BR splurge, but who knows? If Criterion clicks w/ Lloyd as they evidently did with Keaton, skies could be the limit; a Charley Chase or Arbuckle set, perhaps? For now it's Lloyd, he having been prolific enough to leave gobs of work, near-all preserved and ideal for translate to higher-def. This, for me, is where truest rediscovery of Harold Lloyd begins, our ability long-delayed to see every thread on his sleeve and yes, that right hand that wasn't fully a hand, climbing to levels of seeming super-humanity.

SL Returns to the Rex in 1925
A lot of what recommends Harold Lloyd is sheer bravado for risking life/limb, however climbs were staged to avoid "real" hazard. There's no way these heroics were truly safe. To fall "just a couple of stories" or bounce off a mattress to streets below would dependably break my neck, even though, unlike HL, I've got all ten fingers. A lot of us admire Harold as Iron Man at least as much as Lloyd the fun-maker, and take buff's pride in boasting that he did stuff no one dares today, outside of d--n faked CGI (yeah! --- that's telling the 21st century). Admiration for physical prowess doesn't date: ask young women (many) who tweet and tumble Buster Keaton (and Harold) morning to night. I spent a lot of Blu-Ray Safety Last! watching HL's hands, now that digits (or lack of) can be inspected to microscopic grain. So how did he hang on to those ledges? Such query keeps Lloyd forever fascinating, and I don't figure the spell to dissipate anytime soon.

A major factor in Criterion's success revival of these silent comedy features has been, I think, contribution by John Bengtson, referred to by the New York Times as the great detective of silent film locations. His documentary segment was the first thing I watched on Safety Last's BR. Going back to where Harold Lloyd filmed, as Bengtson has, narrows a ninety-year gap and shows much that is unchanged despite relentless, dare I call it, progress? Like treasure hunting among the ruins, he finds this/that place intact against odds imposed by generations of knockdown and makeover. It is exciting to recognize a street or alley where Harold or Buster once staged their gags, and having same pointed out by John Bengtson reassures that Hollywood has at least a vestige of continuity from silent days we cherish. The historian/site sleuth maintains a lavish record of his investigations here in addition to books detailed to a last paving stone. Bengtson's is unique archaeology of eras past, his contributions icing on the cake of Blu-Rays Criterion has so far released.

Beloit's Rex Theatre Is The Storefront Down At The End
Illustrating today's post are daily ads for the Rex Theatre's engagement of Safety Last! in both 1923 and for an encore in 1925. Beloit, Wisconsin was a small town, population 21,284 as of 1920, the Rex a modest house that seated 625. To book a show for four days implied something special, which Safety Last! clearly was, based on management testimonial here. I have a lot of ads for the Rex from this period and none are so profuse as these for Safety Last!. Note particularly the school children matinees at 4:15 for ten cents. It would be impossible for us to indorse or recommend a picture to you that would equal Safety Last. We honestly urge every person in the city of Beloit to see this remarkable earthquake of laughs and thrills. Such hyperbole was expected in larger towns where there was less one-on-one between patrons and showmen, but in Beloit, where a customer was also your neighbor, it wouldn't do to inflate a program to this level unless you knew it could deliver. Safety Last! was merchandise for which raving was justified. Obviously, Beloit's citizenry was in accord, as Safety Last! came back two years later, again with "specially reinforced seats with straps for hysterical patrons," and "a doctor in attendance at all shows."


Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

Your blog gets better and better with each post, which is astounding since it's always been remarkable.

We played Lloyd's official Time-Life -released prints at Dartmouth College back in '77 and those prints had some pretty low rent music tracks. How is the music -- and what is the music -- on the Criterion Safety Last release?

5:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Tom. Your complement is much appreciated.

The score for Criterion's "Safety Last!" is by Carl Davis.

6:38 PM  

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