Safety Last!

This silent comedy from 1922 inspired everyone from Woody Allen to Mr Bean – and the kids love it

What better film to ‘evoke nostalgic memories of a past era of cinema’, as Queen's Film Theatre’s press release puts it, than Safety Last!, the 1923 Harold Lloyd silent classic, still considered one of the finest comedies ever made?

Presented in partnership with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland as part of the Glenn Patterson-curated One City One Book 2012 film season, it’s a winning choice.

The screening, set up to replicate an old-style film club, is preceded by a pair of Warner Bros cartoons starring Road Runner and Bugs Bunny. Even now, when our funny bones have been sharpened to razor-point by the unforgiving likes of South Park and Family Guy, there are still laughs to be had at Wile E Coyote plunging off a ravine or Bugs Bunny intoning, ‘What’s up, doc?’ Sublime stuff.

As the audience settles down – and there’s a decent-sized crowd here, despite the gorgeous weather – the title card of Safety Last! appears onscreen. The first chuckle comes at the short cast list, with Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother and Noah Young billed as, respectively, 'The Boy', 'The Girl', 'The Pal' and 'The Law'.

Of course, the iconic image of Safety Last! is that of Lloyd hanging off a skyscraper’s clock face (referenced in everything from Back to the Future to Hugo), but the rest of the 73 minutes also hold up remarkably well.

Directed by Fred C Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, and produced by legendary comedy impresario Hal Roach – a pivotal figure in the careers of Lloyd and comedy duo Laurel and Hardy – the pace never flags. By the time the opening 'noose' gag pays off, you have forgotten the film is silent, in black-and-white and stars a man who died more than 40 years ago.

The no-fuss plot concerns Lloyd’s character attempting to raise the money to pay for a wedding to his small-town sweetheart, while maintaining the illusion that he is the manager of a department store in the city, rather than a lowly sales clerk. Along the way, he clashes with autocratic superiors and easily wound-up cops.

It’s the same kind of thing Norman Wisdom, Woody Allen and Rowan Atkinson, as Mr Bean, would milk to similarly fine effect over the coming decades.

But Safety Last! was shot in 1922, and remains a master-class in physical comedy, not to mention stunt work. Lloyd performed many of his own climbing stunts despite having lost a thumb and a forefinger in an accident while making another film four years earlier.

There are far more edge-of-the-seat thrills to 'The Boy’s' progress up the side of the skyscraper, encountering pigeons, tennis netting, a painters platform, a swinging window, the aforementioned clock face, a dog, a flagpole, a mouse, a weather vane and a stray rope, than in much of the modern, computer-enhanced, blockbuster fare.

This is proven by the joyous reaction of the youngsters here today, who are discovering a world beyond Kung Fu Panda and Ice Age. Hooray indeed for Harold Lloyd.

One City One Book continues until the end of May, 2012.

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