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.

 

 

The times they are unchangin’

So guess who gets DVDs by mail now? This girl! Two weeks ago Modern Times (1936) blew in through the post, along with Bridesmaids (I tell you I watch everything).

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Modern Times was Chaplin’s first sound film — the 1940 film The Great Dictator his first “talkie”, which interestingly, he swore he would never make. In 1936 it seems he hadn’t reconciled himself to the advent of talkies. Except for a scene in which Chaplin’s  Tramp entertains a cafe audience by singing complete gibberish, he says not a peep. Narration and dialogue occur mainly on intertitles.

It’s also my first exposure to Chaplin’s work — don’t judge, internet. Can I be honest here? All that his name brought to mind before this was a goofy tramp with a tiny mustache. Modern Times changed that. The clarity! Paulette Goddard’s first scene stunned me. Her character, so joyous, so alive as she scrambles along the docks to survive, gritting her teeth against a sharp knife — and life.

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Goddard as “A Gamin.”

The satire and humor! It’s impossible to pick a favorite scene from this film. Among the many is when Chaplin, on the verge of a nervous breakdown after working on a production line, goes on autopilot and attempts to tighten the secretary’s skirt buttons with his wrenches. Or how about after he falls into the cogs?

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Or when the mechanic falls through it? And who can forget the American daydream house where grapes grow around the kitchen door and cows walk up for milking?

It’s not all laughs, of course — they live in the midst of the Great Depression. Tragedy comes in the form of a bread line. The tramp alternately lands in jail and gets fired. Life fights dirty and they fight back — often ending up on the losing side — but they try.

I was excited watching this film. Excited, frustrated, saddened, amused. I could relate to it in different ways — many people can. But the main feeling threading its way throughout the film? Hope. “Buck up — never say die!” the tramp tells “a gamin” as they sit, homeless and exhausted, along the side of a vast, empty highway. She does … and we do too.

Silents: The Artist

Liz: The Artist: 2011 award winning silent film about silent film star George Valentin struggling to transition to talkies and rising star Peppy Miller who tries to help him.

It sounds strange to say, but I like George Valentin’s face. He has a great smile and looks like someone from time period of the movie—the late twenties to early thirties. The film felt as if it were shot during that time. The costumes, the movie studio, the bits of silent films on the silver screen, all reminiscent of Singing in the Rain, made the movie fun to watch regardless of the plot.

The Artist was well done with regards to acting and cinematography. I loved the music, and the occasional use of sound (in a dream and at the end) was brilliant (Jaz: agreed!) and worked great with George’s trouble moving from silent to talkie pictures.

I didn’t like that George was married when his attraction to Peppy became obvious. He didn’t cheat on his wife, but he did treat her poorly. “I’m unhappy,” his wife said. “So are millions of us,” he replied. She wasn’t perfect either, but I don’t blame her for leaving the arrogant fool. I really wanted to like the guy, but there were times when it was difficult. In fact, several times I wanted to shake him and remind him he was married or tell him to get over himself, quit moping and get back to work. Although I can’t approve of Peppy’s infatuation with the married George, I admire her devotion to him even after he loses his career, his wife, his money, and his self-respect.

I also thought George’s love of the spotlight and his depression were overplayed a bit. I got the idea well before the plot moved on.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie and would watch it again.

Jaz: I’m just going to say it: Jean DuJardin is no Gene Kelly. Okay … Dujardin had to learn tap for The Artist, whereas Kelly started dance lessons when he was eight. So I can’t really compare them. Dujardin’s performance was pretty impressive. Still, with all the obvious parallels to Singin’ in the Rain (falls in love with a cute extra, tap dancing scenes, similar appearance, silent-talkie shift) it’s hard to ignore.

Now that that’s out of the way, The Artist is a great film. Clever, tongue-in-cheek, and the cinematography is refreshing. Some scenes are heavy on the melodrama, as when Dujardin maniacally burns reels of film, but who doesn’t like the occasional bit of melodrama? Especially in black and white. I’ve always thought the latter allows for more creativity in the film medium.

Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo’s talent and chemistry work well, so much so that the supporting actors didn’t steal the show. And that’s saying something, because Clifton the chauffeur (played by James Cromwell) and Jack the dog were ridiculously likable.

The Artist got a lot of critic attention – less so from American audiences on its opening weekend. When I went to see it there were about four other couples in the theater. Sigh. Silent films just don’t make a lot of noise with U.S. audiences anymore…