The First Two Weeks by matthew c. hoffman

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No 3-D. Or color for that matter. No Stereo Surround. Or even a dialogue track. Yet, last night on St. Patrick’s Day, during the showing of Safety Last, there was more energy in that meeting room than you’d find in the local cineplex down the street.

The difference between this film and the one I played last week on Opening Night, The Gold Rush, can be measured not so much by attendance– Safety Last only had 3 more patrons for a total of 71– but by audience response. Safety Last received about four times the number of laughs the Chaplin film got. People were genuinely involved with Harold Lloyd, especially with the building-climbing sequence that climaxes the film. This must’ve been how Safety Last played with audiences in 1923. It’s amazing that after all these years, this silent film still provides the thrills. It is the group experience that brings it out. It was as though the audience watching the movie was as captivated as the crowd in the movie that watched him go higher. The collective gasps in the room could not be duplicated sitting in front of a computer screen watching it stream off Netflix.  

I knew it could do this with an audience because I had seen it done before by the Silent Film Society of Chicago. That was with a live organ accompaniment, though, and about 2000 people in attendance at the Gateway. Yet, we were still able to recapture the same magic at our modest venue.

Some of the comments were what I expected. I knew people would be surprised by Harold Lloyd once they discovered him. His films hold up remarkably well. Harold’s progression up the building in Safety Last— and the various obstacles that get in his way– reveal how timeless the sequence is. This is a movie that is almost 90 years old, and yet people were loving it. It may have been the best reaction to any film in the three years I’ve been doing this for the Park Ridge Public Library. One patron thought the film was astounding. I had to point out that some of Lloyd’s best work is still to come.

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There were  fewer laughs during The Gold Rush, but patrons were respectful and understood it was a masterpiece. Chaplin went more for pathos in that film. Maybe some patrons felt the weight of the 96 minute version I played, or maybe they had to get acclimated to the silent medium in this new film series. 

Or maybe audiences need Harold more today. With so much negativity and cynicism going on in the world, we want to see a hero attempt a feat (of real accomplishment) in the face of danger, as in Safety Last, or overcome embarrassment to become a star in The Freshman, or come to the aid of the old-timers in Speedy. It is Harold’s optimism that is completely unique. For a sequence that best illustrates this special quality of his, watch the opening of Dr. Jack in which Harold plays a small-town doctor curing people of their “ills.”

Harold was the Everyman, and that is never more obvious than when we see his films juxtaposed with those of the other comics in Legends of Laughter. He’s just like us, but that in itself is not the reason why he reached the heights of screen comedy. Chaplin’s Little Tramp was certainly not like us. We could never hope to have his adaptability to whatever situation presented itself to him. But his character conveyed universal truths and revealed a shared humanity. We could never be as stoic in the face of chaos as Keaton’s Great Stone Face. But his character’s struggle against a random universe is also our struggle.  This deeper connection to the audience Harold, too, was able to make. It’s not just that he’s like us in appearance and is “normal”-looking, but his interior and exterior struggles are ones we still face today.

Harold took this connection and framed it within films that revealed his best qualities as a performer. Harold’s films continue to tower over so many others. All it takes is an audience to discover this for themselves. He was not the actor Chaplin was, but he was a greater showman, and he knew how to make an entertaining product and present it with feeling. His films had genuine heart born from experience. He listened to his audiences, and if there was some disconnect, he would go back to the studio and correct it. His films may not have been as inventive as Keaton’s, but they were consistently better crafted from cast to photography. In terms of story construction and gag execution, he was every bit as good as Buster Keaton. Harold Lloyd was a master of the comedy technique.

So, it will be interesting to see which comic attracts the most attention in this series and what the responses will be by the end of the program in June. I sincerely hope younger people will continue to show up and discover this treasure trove of cellu-Lloyd. Not those who come because their teachers assigned it as extra credit and it’s unavailable to rent elsewhere. But the ones who realize that something special is taking place underneath the film radar at the Park Ridge Public Library.

There are twelve stories to go in our climb.

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