Safety Last!

Harold Lloyd’s portrayal of life minimum-waged among bloodthirsty department store throngs will resonate with those who’ve worked on the other side of the counter (and that probably accounts for most of us in the 99%).

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The classic 1923 silent comedy follows the misadventures of “The Boy,” who works as a lowly sales associate in The Big City.

It’s so accurate I’m convinced the film’s creators worked at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s at some point. Not much has changed since then. That the phrase “Safety First,” which the film’s title parodies, is still used in corny mandatory safety videos just confirms it (John ignored safety first rules and stood on the top ladder rung. Now he’s dead. *Cue ominous music*). And the scene where hordes of sale-crazed shoppers attack The Boy could come straight from a modern-day Black Friday free-for-all.

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It brought back fond memories. There’s this one scene where a matronly patron asks to see every bolt of cloth on the shelves. In the end she leaves with just a tiny free sample. My experience was similar, only it involved king comforter sets and the tallest shelf in the store. Ah, retail. How I … don’t miss you. 

The Boy promises his fiancé, The Girl (Mildred Davis), he’ll send for her as soon as he makes enough money for them to get married. Of course he lies, writing that he’s making gobs of money and ordering peons around when in reality he’s a lowly clerk behind on rent in the ratty apartment he shares with “The Pal” (Bill Strother, who has a fantastic albeit stomach-churning scene reminiscent of Ebbet’s famous photograph).

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To prove his fabulous success, The Boy buys her a pendant — instead of paying rent — then later a matching chain (instead of paying rent). So naturally The Girl takes matters into her own hands and heads on over to The Big City to marry him. Seeing as he’s so wealthy and all…

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This of course presents a problem for our endearing, not-quite-so-honest hero, and he concocts a scheme to attract customers to the store in exchange for prize money. The idea? Have his friend scale the store building. Only he can’t make it at the last minute, so guess who does it instead?

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It’s a fantastic film; witty, true to life (some parts, anyway), and just plain fun to watch.

 

 

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Murder Comedies: The Trouble with Harry

Liz on The Trouble with Harry:

Like Arsenic and Old Lace, The Trouble with Harry is morbid but leaves me laughing anyway. Part of the appeal is the actors. The Captain, played by Edmund Gwenn (or, as I generally refer to him: Mr. Bennett), is a particular favorite of mine.

Surprise is often associated with humor, and the Vermont villagers’ different reactions to the discovery of a body in the woods certainly excites that emotion. After all, finding a body in the woods and then making a sketch of the man’s face is a perfectly expected reaction, right?

Or how about assuming you shot the man while hunting? This, of course, leads to the frightened Captain to bury the body, identified by a very much not distraught widow as Harry. But poor Harry isn’t left in peace. He gets buried and dug up several times, and then cleaned up, so he can be found once again.

Humorous and well-acted, and though a little risqué in parts, it is an entertaining watch. It’s quite different from other Hitchcock movies, but it does include the traditional brief sighting of Hitchcock. Of course, I also love that the movie begins with a man walking through a lovely countryside singing a song about Tuscaloosa. The entire score is bouncy and amusing; it reminds me of Peter and the Wolf.

Jaz: “If you’re going to get shot, do it where you’re known.” Nobody cares who Harry is, or that he’s lying dead – feet sticking comically up in the air – in the middle of a clearing. Not even his wife.

Harry is met with varying levels of nonchalance as the day wears on. The Captain and his next door neighbor chat pleasantly over the corpse and form a romantic attachment. The town doctor stumbles over Harry twice without looking. The painter sits down to sketch his face. The tramp takes his shoes. The little boy is the only person to react normally to the sight of a corpse.

Several people think they are responsible for his death. Was it the Captain’s neighbor with her heavy shoe? Or the Captain with the stray bullet intended for a rabbit? Or Harry’s wife with the milk bottle? Or someone else? Who cares, just as long as they get the body out of sight. So they bury Harry. But wait … won’t that prove their guilt? So they dig him back up. Then they bury him again. Then they dig him back up. After a while I lost count.  

The Trouble with Harry is an unusual departure from Hitchcock’s signature style, a spoof of his own films. The only clue to this being a Hitchcock creation is the dramatic music, which contrasts humorously with the content. I have to admit I didn’t get it the first time I popped it into the VHS player (yes, it was a while back). The third time I laughed throughout. It’s the kind of film you appreciate more with each additional view.  

Murder Comedies: Murder by Death

Liz on Murder by Death

The butler did it. Only the butler isn’t really the butler. He’s someone else, who’s really someone else. Oh, wait. Now, he’s a she. So, she did it. Or did she? Did anyone actually die?

As you might imagine from the title, Murder by Death is a spoof of murder mysteries—a revenge of the reader on the some of the most popular sleuths (and their creators). Several of my favorite detectives are parodied in the movie: Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man), Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan. There is also a hard-boiled American detective modeled after Richard Diamond and Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon).

Made in the 1970s, Murder by Death is, not surprisingly, crude at times. However, from Poirot’s character’s insistence he’s not French to Charlie Chan’s poor grammar and wise sayings to Miss Marple’s tweed to Nick and Nora’s good breeding saving them from danger (you never know when sitting in the proper place at dinner will prevent you from being skewered), the movie is quite entertaining. You needn’t be familiar with the “real” characters to enjoy the movie, but I think you would appreciate it more if you were.

The story is set up to be a stereotypical murder mystery. The detectives and their companions are invited by a mysterious, unknown host to an isolated country house for the weekend. They arrive on a dark and foggy night. The servants are strange. Bodies pile up and then disappear, and there are several attempts on the lives of the detectives. There is also information withheld and crucial characters not introduced until the end—just like in so many mysteries.

So, was there a murder? As Chan’s character says, “Yes, killed good weekend.”

 Jaz: Miss Marple. Hercule Poirot. Sam Spade. The Thin Man. Charlie Chan. Murder by Death spoofs all of these detective greats and throws in a blind butler, a barking cat, and a series of crimes to add to the fun.

You won’t go one second into the film without bumping into star talent. Truman Capote, David Niven and Maggie Smith (Dick and Dora Charleston), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marble), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), James Coco (Milo Perrier) and Sir Alec Guinness (Jamesir Bensenma’am) all play a part in this quirky crime comedy.

“You are cordially invited to dinner and a murder,” Capote’s invites read in the opening scene. And what a murder it is. Two, in fact. But the most important question, as Perrier points out, is: where is the butler? And why did he not return … with their dinner?!

The detectives are baffled. And even more so when they find a bill in the corpse’s hand revealing that the entire murder has been (gasp!) catered. Who would do such a thing? Who is the murderer? Surely not the host, because he’s dead too. Or so everyone believes…

What ensues involves scorpions, a deaf-mute cook, plenty of sly jabs at the characters, a moose on the wall, and franks and beans, not to mention innumerable hilarious quotes:

Sam Diamond: “I don’t get it. First they steal the body and leave the clothes, then they take the clothes and bring the body back. Who would do a thing like that?”
Dick Charleston: “Possibly some deranged dry cleaner.”

The ending leaves all the detectives stumped for an answer for the first time in their lives, which is rather refreshing. If you’re a fan of classic mysteries, you’re guaranteed to love this film—and get all the jokes.