Safety Last! (1923, dirs. Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)


Anyone who’s paid any attention at all to the silent era of movies will have seen at least one of the most famous silent-movie stunts — Harold Lloyd, seemingly halfway up climbing the side of a building, hanging on for dear life as he grabs hold of a giant clock after putting a foot wrong. Suddenly, the clock face comes partially undone, leaving him hanging high over a busy street. This is of course from one of Lloyd’s full-length features, Safety Last!, and it is a gem — but only one of the amazing stunts in the film, which is also quite funny.

Lloyd is often thought of last when one tries to name the giants of silent-era comedy, behind Chaplin and Keaton, but for my money he’s actually the most versatile of the bunch. While Chaplin almost always played a tramp in his silents, and Keaton forever plays a stone-faced version of the unluckiest man alive, Lloyd is often the sunny embodiement of American Exceptionalism, resiliently cheerful and sure that everything is going to work out despite the craziest things happened to him, and indeed that blind faith carries him through.

In Safety Last!, Lloyd opens the film looking like he’s in potentially fatal trouble — in jail and perhaps saying his goodbyes to his loved ones, with a hangman’s noose in the foreground. The set changes slightly, and we see in fact that noose was on a mail peg designed to allow the train to deliver a bag of parcels without stopping, and Lloyd was just a small-town young man on his way to the big city to make his mark.

He was doing this to secure his relationship to his intended bride (played by real-life wife Mildred Davis), by ensuring he has a career that can support a household and eventual family. The earnestness just radiates off Lloyd’s can-do attitude and beaming, positive face, but in fact like any such fellow he has to start small — sharing a room with a friend, working hard, and not quite catching the American Dream somehow … this film was only a few years prior to the start of the Great Depression, but somehow foreshadowed that all was not well with the game of “work your way to success.”

In another tell-tale America-of-the-20s trait, he puffs up his level of success to impress his girl, which in turn means he ends up spending most of his meagre paycheque on gifts he sends to her … skipping meals, hiding from the landlady, and making other sacrifices. In one scene, he ponders the cost of another gift while also staring at an advert for a “businessman’s lunch” (which costs 50¢ … you should see this film just to marvel at the prices of things!), and as he pushes himself to sacrifice for his bride-to-be, his minds “disappears” each of the five plates that were included in that luncheon. You can feel Lloyd’s hunger pangs.

As you might expect, the girl gets the idea to come visit and surprise him, and on very short notice he has to come up with ways to convince her he is as successful as he has boasted, hiding his lowly “real life.” While to modern audiences this thin plot moves along fairly slowly, there are always impressive stunts and action sequences (just him getting to the office is a great section of pratfalls and dangerous gambles) to fill the time until the next plot point.

Lloyd pays off a colleague not to reveal that he’s not the manager and this isn’t his office.

Mostly, Lloyd’s character (who was known as the “glasses man” in his earlier work, but he finally identifies the character as being himself — Harold Lloyd — on a business card, suggesting some real-life incidents are incorporated into the tale) just combines his incredible physicality with on-screen great luck in avoiding being killed or decapitated as would happen to the rest of us if we tried these stunts. Yes, there were stuntmen used and some clever camera trickery for the finale, but Lloyd is visibly on-screen for a number of these feats and it adds richly to the action.

In a panic over being found out as not the success he portrayed to his girl, he overhears the owner of the store wishing for a big publicity stunt and, thinking of his friend “Limpy” (the incredible Bill Strother, both a supporting character and sometimes Lloyd’s double for steeplejack and stunt sequences) who loves climbing buildings, offers a sure-fire plan to draw a crowd: he’ll climb to the top of the very tall department store building!

In an earlier sequence that sets up the climax of the film, Lloyd recognises a policeman in town as being an old buddy from their youth, and goads Limpy into helping him play a knock-down gag on the copper. But he doesn’t see his friend go inside and be replaced with a different cop, so when the prank is successful the furious flatfoot swears revenge on Limpy (Lloyd having quickly escaped). This sets up the dilemma that sees Limpy unable to scale the building in Lloyd’s stead (he was going to just take Lloyd’s glasses, hat and coat to fool the bosses), and Lloyd having to be coached into doing the climbing himself as the cop continues to chase Limpy around the store.

The sub-plot that sets up the finale

Of course, Lloyd doesn’t think he can do it, but Limpy reassures him that he’ll ditch the mad cop and take his place if he just climbs up a couple of floors. Well, the cop doesn’t give up that easily, and Limpy swings by a window every floor to encourage Lloyd to climb just another floor or two … until finally Lloyd has barely survived climbing up the entire building, reaping the entire $1,000 reward* for himself into the bargain, thus securing his forthcoming marriage.

*Lloyd is shown to be netting $15 every two weeks — remember this is 1923 — so a grand is like three years of wages in a single day, and of course it is implied he’ll be promoted as well.

Before the big climb and during it, there are numerous funny moments and smaller-scale stunts to keep things moving along, but the film — as ingenious and humourous as it is — still feels like the kind of plot that would sustain a film only half its one hour 13 minute runtime, and just throws in a lot of sequences that feel like (clever) padding.

Lloyd’s Not-Of-London … his actual position at the store.

That said, it’s very worth seeing. The incredibly clever way they did the climatic climbing sequences really make it easy to believe he’s hanging by a thread incredibly high up, but it wasn’t quite like that (you’ll have to guess how they did it in the silent era without the modern safety constraints and optical techniques such things would have today, I’m not telling).

I will however say that there’s a short Criterion Channel documentary made much later that reveals the secrets of Safety Last called Safety Last: Location and Effects that will spill the beans if you can’t figure it out yourself.

Throw in some incredibly well-trained pigeons (yes, really), a truly hilarious one-line cameo by a little old lady, and Lloyd’s amazing physical comedy, and you end up splitting your time between chuckling and staring wide-eyed at how he’s going to get out of this new bit of trouble.

If you’ve only seen sequences or still images from the film, I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing. Of course it was a big hit with audiences in its day, but in some ways it still embodies some uniquely American ideas about work-life balance, exploitative capitalism, and risk-reward philosophies that stand up today. Despite these subtle but weighty themes, it’s a feel-good film that everyone in the family will enjoy. Still!

The Testament of Orpheus (Le Testament d’Orphée)

1960, Dir. Jean Cocteau

52-week film challenge, film 13

Now this here is perhaps the ultimate example of what most “normal” people think of when they think of “art-house cinema snob” highbrow movies: a B&W (mostly) film made by some furriner where you have to read subtitles, starring some old dude who says things that sound weighty but are incomprehensible to “normal” people; long, slow-paced shots of people walking around things in odd ways; very little action; obvious erotic overtones without any of “the good stuff”; obscure back-references to other films or Greek tragedies nobody saw; self-directed and pretentious, and of course no attempt at a linear, relatable plot. 🙂

Cocteau’s final film (and almost his final anything: he would die just three years later) seems — at least to me — like an attempt to fuse the ideas of The Blood of a Poet and Orpheus into one final statement, weighted by the additional weight of mortality that increases as we grow older. It is 100 percent guilty of everything I mentioned in the paragraph above, but as I watched it for the first time Cocteau still managed to work his ingenious magic on me: couldn’t take my eyes off the thing because I literally could not guess what was going to happen next.

Even though the film does indeed strike a self-assessing tone, there is playful humour sprinked throughout — some of Cocteau’s answers to questions or dialogue from his characters to him are quite witty. As usual, the film puts layers on layers, and slathers on the symbolism. This time around, though, Cocteau himself is the star, though viewers of his 1950 film Orpheus may be surprised and certainly delighted to see several cast members not that classic in key roles in this one — though Cocteau did not credit any of the players for fear of misleading his audience.

This is also your chance to see cameos from Pablo Picasso and Charles Aznevore, and a small but important role for Yul Brynner, who helped finance the film, among other notable names of the time. This one is also in black and white, which by 1960 was all but gone from cinema screens, but like Orpheus is utterly gorgeous.

Cocteau plays … well, at some points he is clearly playing himself (billed as The Poet), and at some points (particularly early on), he is playing a character … a mysterious poet and scientist dressed as a 17th-century dandy who appears like a ghost to a colleague (Henri Crémieux, the first of many from Orpheus to be in this, albeit in a slightly different role) to release him from the error of his time-travel experiment by shooting him, whereupon he “snaps back” to the present day and becomes “himself,” i.e. the “real” Cocteau — though he does occasionally catch a glimpse of doppelgängers of himself still moving through this faux-dreamscape, like reflections in a mirror.

I found it particularly interesting that these scenes (and others later) are obviously filmed in a small portion of a bare, empty film studio … no sets or any form of artifice to set the scene, just basic walls and plain tables and chairs, and no attempt to “fool” the viewer as to where they are, or even to create a “void” space. This is a film, we’re in a small studio with minimal resources, and you can see all of that. As the film progresses, it relies more heavily on location filming, which is (as always with Cocteau) mostly ruins or symbolic sets placed in the ruins, symbols for the messiness of life but also for those moments where something meaningful is achieved.

As for what it all means, Cocteau later wrote about this in the most art-y way possible: “The Testament of Orpheus is simply a machine for creating meanings. The film offers the viewer hieroglyphics that he can interpret as he pleases so as to quench his inquisitive thirst for Cartesianism.” There, that clears it up!

Cocteau plays extensively with the “mythology” he created for Orpheus, and in effect some of this is a — kind of? — sequel to that film, in that Cégeste (his real-life adopted son, Edouard Dermit) , The Princess of Death (María Casares), and Huertebise (François Périer) have substantive roles to show what happened to them. Cégeste, sometimes reminding Cocteau that that’s only his character name, is his guide to the underworld; and true to the ending of Orpheus, The Princess and Huertebise have indeed been “sentenced” to become judges of the newly-dead, and now they are subjecting their creator, Cocteau, to an inquisition.

Cocteau mounts a “defense” by defending his need to create, to review his life, and to put his inner discoveries into visual language on screen or in writing for others to hopefully gain some enlightenment. After an inconclusive end to the “court” case, Cocteau wanders through mysterious ruins, occasionally running into men dressed as horses, until finally a Greek warrior of some sort kills him again. His friends rally to resurrect him yet again — the sort of immortality Cocteau hoped for — and he resumes his wanderings.

And in case you are wondering, as a sort of joke, Jean Marais (who played Orpheus in that film) briefly appears here — as another classic Greek figure, Oedipus (post eye-gouging). Eurydice (although played by a different actor, Alice Heyliger) is also seen briefly. Some others from Orpheus are likely in there too, but those are the ones I spotted.

A lengthy section of the film, with the motif repeated a few times, is that of Cocteau destroying a flower and then rebuilding it. In the decade between Orpheus and this final film, the French New Wave of cinema has bloomed, in no small part thanks to Cocteau’s influence — just as surrealist filmmaking became a thing after his first film (and the first film in this “trilogy”), The Blood of a Poet (1930).

Cocteau made a number of other films between that first one and this last one, but he clearly intended this one to be his last statement to the general public. I have to borrow a bit from Ken Phipps’ review of Testament for the AV Club, since he has summed up the film’s meaning about as well as it can be: “In the end, Cocteau takes comfort in the immortality of art, and therefore his own immortality, a sentiment that would seem far less moving and far more egotistical if it weren’t true.”

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, Yul Brynner.

Orpheus (Orphée), (1950, dir. Jean Cocteau)

52-week film challenge, film 12

As I watched Cocteau’s previous take on the idea of chaining the mythological tale of Orpheus to the struggle artists go through to create and realise their art, The Blood of a Poet, I kept getting flashbacks of some other film I had seen decades ago that featured some of the same inventive visual effect and angst-y performances, but I couldn’t quite place it. I’ve seen more than my fair share of arty and experimental films, so I imagined that it was simply some film that had been influenced by Cocteau, as many have been.

I turned out to be right — it was Orpheus, Cocteau’s own second attempt at some of the visual ideas and concepts he expressed in Blood of a Poet. I had seen the second part of this prolonged trilogy many years ago, and remembered more the story and contemporary setting than the effects and other bits he borrowed and polished up from his earlier film. My scholastic impression of Orpheus was that I liked the urgent, modern (at the time), beatnik tone of the first half, and was less impressed with the slower-paced second half.

Now that I’ve rewatched it after all these years, I’m even more impressed with it (though I still think the second half could have used better editing). Cocteau was a pioneer of shorthand storytelling, and of deliberately leaving a lot of elements unresolved — I’m still working out the full meaning of the character Cégeste (Édouard Dermit), though I think he may represent the image of a writer at his peak, and be sort of a representation of Orpheus’ (Jean Marais) image of himself.

Poor Cégeste spends nearly all of the movie either dead or as a zombie servant.

In the film, Orpheus is a famous poet, hanging out in a bar for poets, being kind of an ass until a Princess (a memorable performance by Maria Casares) and her boy toy Cégeste arrive. Orpheus is mesmerised by the Princess, while Cégeste starts a brawl, dropping some of his own poetry in the fracas. Cégeste starts to flee, but is run over by two mysterious motorcycle riders.

The Princess persuades the arriving police that she will take Cégeste to hospital, and drags a willing Orpheus along into her limo “as a witness.” Along the way, Orpheus discovers that Cégeste is actually dead, and the Princess is some otherworldly creature. His instincts make him fall in love with her as they ride to her ruined chateau, accompanied by the motorcylists who killed Cégeste. Abstract poetry begins to play on the radio (which is later revealed to be Cégeste’s own poetry, read by him: time is meaningless in the underworld).

Cégeste is resurrected by the Princess, and the riders exit the chateau through a mirror (a direct steal from The Blood of a Poet, and only one of several in this movie). Orpheus, who is isolated in another room, eventually wakes up the next morning far from home, with the Princess’ limo driver Heurtebise (François Périer) waiting for him to take him home. Orpheus offers Heurtebise room and board in his home and space in the garage to hide the limo, which everyone in the village would recognise and alert police.

Heurtebise (l) and Orpheus (r) receive a threat from the underworld.

Orpheus refuses to discuss his all-night disappearance or what happened to Cégeste with his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), and really behaves in a self-centered, brutish manner — even as she tries to tell him she is pregnant. As Heurtebise starts to fall in love with Eurydice, all Orpheus wants to do is sit in the limo and transcribe some strange poetry mixed with meaningless other oration — that mysteriously only comes through on the limo’s car radio.

The Princess visits Orpheus while he is asleep, and influences his dreaming. She eventually has Eurydice killed in the same fashion as Cégeste, as she is in love with Orpheus. We learn that both the Princess and Heurtebise are themselves spirits, and servants of Death (who is not personified in the film).

The Princess in her Death uniform as she watches Orpheus sleep.

Orpheus is shocked out of his defensive state by the news, and Heurtebise reveals himself as an agent of Death, noting that the Princess accidentally left a pair of gloves behind. He offers to lead Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve the unjustly killed Eurydice. Orpheus confesses his secret to Heurtebise: he is in love with the Princess, but agrees to travel with Heurtebise to undo Eurydice’s murder.

Orpheus is able to enter the underworld through the mirror by donning the Princess’ gloves, and Heurtebise and Orpheus move through a ruined city until arriving at a barren room where other agents conduct an investigation of Eurydice’s murder, questioning the Princess, Cégeste, Orpheus, and Heurtebise before concluding that the Princess overstepped her authority.

They agree to return Orpheus and Eurydice to the land of the living, on one impossible condition: Orpheus may never look upon her again, or Eurydice will disappear from this world and return to being dead. Forced to agree, Heurtebise, Orpheus, and Eurydice return to the living world, but find the restriction very difficult to avoid. Ultimately, Orpheus errs, and Eurydice disappears.

At that moment, a gang from the poet’s cafe arrives, angry that Orpheus has refused to reveal what happened to Cégeste and his missing body. In a violent confrontation, Orpheus takes a pistol but is quickly disarmed and himself shot dead. This of course causes Orpheus to reappear in the underworld, where he finds the Princess and declares his undying love for her.

The Princess seems to know that this affair was her own doing, and regretfully decides to sacrifice herself to Death so that Orpheus might be returned to life and become “an immortal poet.” After another tribunal hearing, the decision is made to return Eurydice and Orpheus to life with no memory of previous events. With no recollection of his love for the Princess, Orpheus returns to his true nature and loves Eurydice again, excited for his forthcoming child.

The Princess and Heurtebise, having caused this mess, are sentenced to a fate worse than death: they must replace the tribunal members who judge the dead. The sadness in the Princess’ eyes at the end is a powerful image, and the audience is left wondering if the crowd at the poet’s cafe has also had their memories wiped of these events.

Taken as a whole, my initial impressions on first viewing were not wrong, but very incomplete: having known the story of Orpheus already — thank you, Edith Hamilton — I mostly ignored that part of the film (while enjoying the visuals, some of which return to the same locations as in The Blood of a Poet). Now, I see more of what Cocteau was going for — again comparing the difficulty of true artistic creation of going to hell and back and forcing one’s self to confront one’s angels and demons.

It’s true the second half is slower-paced, at times becoming a cosmic version of a police procedural — but the performances, the passionate flow of emotions, and the gorgeous filming — particularly of the ruins of the underworld — kept me more attentive to the mystical aspects of the story this time around.

Orpheus is not quite as good as Cocteau’s earlier Beauty and the Beast, but it is a classic and it is a stunning accomplishment that still feels fresh in many ways. The influence of the film in later works by others is now obvious, though somehow Cocteau’s films remain singular in style and vision.

There have been many variations on the Orpheus & Eurydice story, and I haven’t seen all of them, but I’m confident that this remains one of the most original and interesting versions. The conclusion of his “trilogy” around this tale — The Testament of Orpheus, in which the director himself is the star — is next on my list, and I encourage anyone with an interest in classic French cinema to investigate this incredible artistic achievement.