Friday, April 13, 2012

"Safety Last!" and the Draw of the Human Fly

This post was originally published on the lonelybrand blog as part of an ongoing silent film series.

silent film

Chances are, even if you haven’t seen a single silent film, you’re still familiar with this image. It’s an iconic shot that has been recreated by the likes of Christopher Lloyd in "Back to the Future," Asa Butterfield in “Hugo” and Jackie Chan on several occasions, but the man who started it all, and is featured in the photo above, is silent film comedian Harold Lloyd.

silent film

You might remember that Lloyd went through several character transformations, including the Chaplin-esque Lonesome Luke, before settling on his ‘glasses’ persona -- the character that brought him silent film immortality. Although Lloyd was considered the everyman, unlike Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his character seemed to find his way into the most bizarre situations. The best examples of which can be found in his thrill comedies like “Safety Last!” -- the film that gave birth to the iconic image above. What’s interesting about the film is that it was born out of a marketing and publicity stunt.

silent film, man hanging off a building

In the 1910s and 1920s, department stores would often employ ‘human flies’ to bring publicity and attention to their businesses. Lloyd witnessed one of these stunts firsthand when he saw Bill Strother climbing the Brockman Building in Los Angeles as a stunt. Lloyd was fascinated and terrified, and hid behind a corner, occasionally peeking to check on Strother's progress. When Strother reached the roof, Lloyd went up and introduced himself. After seeing the event unfold before him, Lloyd got the idea to translate that stunt into a film and gave Strother a role as his best friend.

The climax of the film involves Lloyd hilariously and clumsily recreating the human fly stunt that he saw Strother perform. Of course, a number of obstacles get in his way, including a flock of pigeons and a relatively flimsy clockface. The climbing sequence itself represents a high point in silent film stunts and was such a hit with audiences that Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and even Lloyd himself would recreate versions of it in later films. The fact that Lloyd wasn't working in front of a matte painting or a rear projection, and really was as far up the building as he appeared to be, thrilled and terrified audiences, and continues to do so today. The fact that Lloyd did this stunt after losing his right index finger and thumb during an accident on the set of an earlier film is even more astounding. You can watch the climbing sequence below.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Cashing in on Chaplin

This post was originally published on the lonelybrand blog as part of an ongoing silent film series.

A favorite practice in silent film was for studios to find their version of the hottest star of the moment. Even studios who were fortunate enough to have signed the original star were constantly looking for replacements. Theda Bara called Fox Studios home for years, but when she left, the studio began to promote Betty Blythe as their new vamp. They even cast her in roles that were incredibly similar to those portrayed by Bara.

Imitators, replacements and second-stringers meant that the studios stood a chance to indirectly profit off of the most popular stars, even if they were signed elsewhere or unavailable. At a point in his career, Charlie Chaplin was the most recognizable figure in the world. He was one of the first silent film stars to become recognized internationally as a movie star, and was a guaranteed sure-thing for any studio or any theater that acquired him or his films. It should come as no surprise, then, that studios and aspiring actors and comedians would look to Chaplin for inspiration. Soon, many were cashing in on imitating Chaplin, and one imitator in particular made no effort to hide it.

Billy West was the best known of the Chaplin imitators. When the public was demanding more and more Chaplin films, a producer saw an opportunity and signed West to profit from that demand. His appearance (in costume) was identical to Chaplin and his films also borrowed heavily from Chaplin, so much so that the casual observer could mistake him for the real deal. West was signed to King-Bee and his heyday lasted from 1917-1918 -- when Chaplin was signed to Mutual. His studio even went so far as to call West “The Funniest Man on Earth.” Although West was the star of the pictures, his on-screen success was shortlived and certainly outshined by his on-screen foe Oliver "Babe" Hardy (later of Laurel and Hardy) and on-screen love Leatrice Joy. By 1920, West had given up his ‘tramp’ persona. To get a sense of West’s early films, check out ‘The Candy Kid’ below.

Silent film favorite Harold Lloyd found early success with his ‘Lonesome Luke’ character, which was also a nod to Chaplin. Unlike West, Lloyd was almost a parody of Chaplin. His costume was almost a reversal of Chaplin’s -- the clothes were ridiculously small instead of too big, he replaced the hat and divided the mustache down the middle. Although Lloyd found success with the “Luke” series, he, like West, eventually felt restricted by the persona. When Lloyd abandoned the ‘Luke’ persona and adopted his ‘glasses’ persona, he found a character that was truly his own and that proved to be a true box office threat to Chaplin.

Curious about Harold Lloyd's career post-Lonesome Luke? Check out my review for his feature film "The Kid Brother."