Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Feature fresh, funny 90 years after the fact

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BESPECTACLED, proper-looking Harold Lloyd looked the milquetoast part of the title role of his 1922 feature Grandma's Boy. But behind the bookish facade raged a prodigious comic mind, as Lloyd would demonstrate in 1923 in his best-known feature Safety Last.

Lloyd plays, "the Boy" a.k.a Harold Lloyd, an ambitious young bumpkin who heads to the big city to make his fortune, planning to eventually send for his fianc©e -- "The Girl" (Mildred Davis, the real Mrs. Lloyd) -- once he has achieved some success.

But that success is slow to come. He toils at a department store cutting fabric for a sometimes frenzied female clientele. (Watch for a funny, only slightly risqu© gag when a woman asks him if he's sure a length of cloth is really a yard and a half.)

But in his letters home, Harold pretends to be successful, sending Mildred jewelry he can't afford. Reasoning that Harold has already achieved his goals, she comes to town, forcing the poor shmuck to engage in an elaborate charade in which he pretends to be the store manager.

He can't keep that pretence up for long, so he hits on a money-making scheme with construction worker pal Limpy Bill (Bill Strother) to draw customers to the department store with a human-fly publicity stunt. When Limpy is sidelined by a particularly bothersome beat cop, Harold himself must scale the building, one harrowing floor at a time.

Just about everyone knows the iconic image from this film: Lloyd hanging on for dear life from the hands of a giant building clock. The scene is paid homage in the climax of Back to the Future and more recently in Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

But Lloyd's gift for comic mayhem is all over this movie, almost -- but not quite -- rivalling the anarchic invention of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whom Lloyd routinely outgrossed at the box office in the 1920s.

There is one offensive image: Harold's interaction with a Jewish jewelry retailer presents the worst kind of stereotype, a hand-wringing, grungy-toothed, predatory merchant. While buying a chain, Lloyd himself starts wringing his own hands in tandem with this dime-store Shylock.

Otherwise, Safety Last's comedy is fresh and dependably hilarious, viewed in a gorgeous print likewise unscathed by time.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 C7

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