Every now and then, the gamble you take when agreeing to go do something you haven’t done before pays off, and you get to experience something truly great. I’m glad I didn’t say no, fearing being bored out of my mind, when a friend invited me to a screening of the silent film Safety Last! at the Granada Theatre, part of a free event sponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a full-length silent film. I had seen excerpts from Charlie Chaplin films on television, but that was the extent of my experience. At first I vacillated, completely undecided whether or not to make the trip downtown. My 10-year-old wasn’t so sure either, but he agreed to go, uttering a vague threat, “But if it is boring … ”
Luckily, the movie was anything but boring. My son and I, along with the rest of the audience, laughed out loud as Harold Lloyd dealt with difficult customers, evaded a police officer, and tried to prevent his girlfriend from finding out he was a store clerk rather than the manager of a department store. We were on the edge of our seats as Lloyd scaled a high-rise in downtown Los Angeles.
When the movie first started, I thought that the lack of dialogue would be problematic. But even without hearing what the characters had to say, their actions were engaging and entertaining. Plus, there was live music. Michael Mortilla, a well-known musician and composer, provided piano accompaniment throughout the film. After the first few minutes, you forgot that the music wasn’t part of the film score.
Watching Movies at the Granada
We were watching a digitally restored copy of Safety Last!, which was first released in 1923. It is labeled as a romantic comedy and features a list of characters called The Boy, The Girl, and The Pal. Despite the generic labels, the characters grow on you, and you root for them as they try to extricate themselves from sticky situations.
Charles Wolfe, professor of Film & Media Studies at UCSB, introduced the film with a talk about the Granada Theatre and the influence Safety Last! had on subsequent movies. He thought the Granada was a particularly appropriate venue, since at eight stories it is the tallest building in Santa Barbara and similar to the high-rise Lloyd climbs in the pivotal scene of the film. The Granada was a product of the 1920s, as well, and a venue that was visited by many film luminaries, such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Harold Lloyd.
Wolfe told us that Safety Last! was Lloyd’s first full-length silent film. Since he had only made short films before this, he had to revamp his style to accommodate the longer film. The visual gags and stunts that were integral to his films had to be connected to tell a story that could entertain an audience for an extended time. One of the most famous scenes in the movie, in which Lloyd dangles from the hand of a clock high above the city streets, has become an iconic image and is a great example of Lloyd’s technique for engaging the audience with intricate, spectacular stunts.
The differences between Lloyd’s film and those in the movie theaters today are astounding. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a film without a spectacular car crash, a horrific explosion, or some other over-the-top mayhem. However, Lloyd proved that a good story is all you need to produce a great film. When the main character climbs a building in Los Angeles to make money to marry his girlfriend, the action is compelling. You agonize when he loses his footing, gets caught in a net, has a mouse climb up his pant leg. When you see a film like Safety Last! you can see why people used to flock to the movie theaters; there is something magical in the storytelling that leaves you wanting more.