Safety Last!

Safety Last! Pathé  1923.

Before watching the movie:

For the first time in 20 years, works copyrighted in the United States are entering the public domain, after being put in a freeze by the Copyright Term Extension Act, because who cares if everyone who participated in creating these works are probably dead by now when there’s still profit to be had? Well, as of the beginning of the month (January 2019), works published in 1923 have finally had their copyrights expire, and among them is this iconic film that nobody seems much interested in the plot of.

To be fair, the stunts and slapstick routines are likely more the point of the movie than the story they’re hung upon, but as far as I can tell without reading too far ahead, this is the story of a young man’s misadventures in becoming respectable enough for his girlfriend to marry him. The reason everyone talks about it though, is because of the iconic, very real, and dangerous scene where Lloyd hangs from a clock, which has been homaged endlessly. To me, and probably others, “a man dangles from a clock hand” is a Back to the Future reference, but when Christopher Lloyd did it, the filmmakers were referencing Harold Lloyd. But there’s still a lot of story to get to that point.

After watching the movie:

Young Harold gets on the train from his small town to go to the big city and make his fortune, promising to send for his girl to come and marry him when he’s done so. Big city living is hard, and money is scarce, especially since Harold is buying expensive jewelry to send home for the purpose of keeping up a narrative that he’s doing better than he really is, working as a harried sales clerk at De Vore’s department store living paycheck to paycheck. One day, Harold runs into an old friend from back home who’s now working as a policeman, and tries to show off to his roommate Bill that he can get away with messing with policemen. Unfortunately, Harold and Bill then proceed to prank the wrong policeman, who chases Bill up the side of a building and swears to arrest him if he ever sees his face again. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother suggests to his girl that if he’s got enough money to be buying her jewelry, it’s not safe to leave him alone in the city. Trying to keep up the charade in person now, Harold needs something big to secure his fortune in a hurry. Perhaps a daredevil scaling the 12-story building, sponsored by De Vore’s?

Though the plot is thin and mostly moves from setup to setup while laying the foundation for the climb that makes the final act of the movie, it’s fairly cute in execution. Aside from the climb, the physical comedy isn’t of the remarkable spectacle that I’m used to from Keaton and Chaplin, but it’s entertaining, and often clever.

From the legend of the clock-hanging moment, I was a little let down by its significance in the moment. It’s just one more gag in the climbing sequence, and one or two other moments seemed more precarious. The drama of the moment has been rendered obsolete by iteration. Harold Lloyd dangling from the hand of a clock six or seven stories above a city street doesn’t thrill me because every homage since has been made more dire through increasingly modern techniques.

The rest of the movie is, while not a monumental work of cinema, as suggested by how much people remember the plot leading up to the climb, a charming romp that does what it sets out to do, and is a perfectly good way to pass 70-odd minutes. But the moment it’s remembered for doesn’t live up to the hype anymore. It stands out only in relation to what came before it, but most of what I know is what’s come after it. The legend is bigger than the film.

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The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock

The 30-foot Bride of Candy Rock. Columbia Pictures Corporation 1959.

Before watching the movie:

It seems like the 50s and 60s had a fascination not just with science shenanigans making small things gigantic, but making women gigantic in particular, and apparently even Lou Costello got in on it.

This is notably the only film Costello made without Abbott, and I’m not sure how that will work out because while in modern comedy, comedians work solo just fine, I know that back in the day it was considered correct and proper to pay Abbott more than Costello because anyone could be a comedian, but a good straight man for the comedian to play against was worth his weight in gold, and that’s something that’s evident in the duo’s greatest hits.

After watching the movie:

Artie Pinsetter is a broke garbage collector who studies science in his spare time and hopes to make his name by uncovering an atomic energy source behind the strange activity in the cave outside of town. His girlfriend Emmy Lou wants him to marry her already, but he’s too preoccupied with his research, and after an argument, she runs into the cave and suddenly grows to 30 feet tall. When Artie tries to explain what’s happened to her wealthy uncle Raven Rossiter, he says that Emmy Lou has gotten “big”, and Rossiter assumes he means she’s pregnant, and sends a priest to perform a shotgun marriage so they won’t wreck his chances at being elected to public office. But the problems inherent in suddenly being a giant woman outside of town won’t go away so easily, and Artie and Emmy Lou’s relationship is strained by the hardship. Also the army decides she’s obviously an invading Martian and diverts a war game exercise to shoot her down.

Gale Gordon’s Rossiter is somewhat of a type with Bud Abbott, and he’s certainly the main straight man to Artie’s antics, but it wouldn’t have worked with Abbot because Bud and Lou are always friends or at least partners, and Rossiter is more of an antagonist. He berates Artie constantly and doesn’t want him anywhere near his niece until he thinks she’s already pregnant, and then she’s suddenly just as poisonous to his image and power as Artie is. He’s also reminiscent of The Beverly Hillbillies’ Mr. Drysdale.

Of course, the giant effects rarely avoid having the characters seem isolated. The budget doesn’t have room for much more than high/wide shots and low/tight shots, but they go a long way with tiny props. There are a handful of shots that might have been optically printed, and there’s at least one very successful shot that I think was done with rear projection where the camera actually tracks with Artie as he walks along the length of Emmy Lou’s reclining figure and they actually share a shot while trading dialogue.

The finale gets really weird, to the point that I was anticipating a reveal that it’s all a dream. It’s not really incorrect to say that everything is resolved from Artie’s scientific skill, but it’s much more informed and indirect than earned. It feels more like it’s just time to have exciting comedic hijinks, and then once those are over, so is the movie.

I appreciate that it’s clear throughout that Artie earnestly loves and cares for Emmy Lou. He’s not just quick to reassure her when she’s scared and putting herself down about suddenly being five times her old size, but his reaction seems to come from a genuine place of having more of his sweetheart to love. He only wavers when they have an argument and she goes against his advice and orders, but he’s already ready to forgive her when she comes back. His attempt to assert authority as her husband is not something that’s aged well, but for the kinds of characters that Costello plays, trying to claim authority is kind of a character growth moment, so I try not to let it bother me too much.

This is a sweet, fun movie that tells its story with the visual tools available pretty well. I would have liked the end to have been stronger from a story perspective, but the character work makes up for it. It’s probably not the worst thing Costello could’ve gone out on.

Movies of my Yesterdays: The Iron Giant

I dimly remember actually seeing this movie in the theater, but for whatever reason, what sticks with me more is getting it for Christmas, in a set with a toy figure (example photo, not mine) that was both exciting and yet I don’t think I ever actually played with. I seem to associate the story with winter scenes as well, even though I know there are summer scenes. I guess it takes place over a longer period of time than I thought.

I do recall that seeing the movie in the theater was at least one of the first times I allowed myself to cry at a movie (in a dark theater). The emotion that this movie draws out of celluloid is one of the main reasons that it’s endured as a modern classic and stands out against the more bland landscape of contemporaries that, unlike the perennial vintage cinema, we can still remember. In the nine(!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve covered many movies from that year. Only a few of them come close to the legacy The Iron Giant immediately cemented.

The Iron Giant. Warner Bros. 1999.

Hogarth, a boy in advanced classes with an excitable imagination outside of small town Rockwell, Maine, goes investigating his missing TV antenna and comes across a 50-foot tall robot from space! The giant robot, which eats metal, tries to eat a power station transformer, and gets tangled up in power lines, and Hogarth rescues him by pulling the shutoff switch. As Hogarth investigates, the giant befriends him, and they quickly form a secret partnership with junkyard artist Dean for the use of his scrap metal so the giant won’t go hungry. But the reports of strange sightings draw government agent Kent Mansley, a cold war G-man who sees Soviet threats in anything he doesn’t understand. Kent quickly susses out that Hogarth isn’t telling all he knows, and if he can get proof that there’s a dangerous weapon in Rockwell, he’ll finally get the respect he thinks he deserves.

This might not be the first time I’ve watched the movie since that VHS, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed how much care was put into the art for this movie. I’m not sure I’ve seen better cel-shaded CGI before, but the Giant, Sputnik, and the missile are CG renders blended in so well it’s easy to forget they’re technically a different medium, and if they used it for other things, I couldn’t even tell or it wasn’t major enough to remember. However, the CGI was something I was aware of years ago. This time, I was also looking at the traditional animation, and especially the lovingly-created backgrounds. I think I’ve seen this movie called a love letter to traditional animated movies in an era where everyone wanted to make the next Toy Story, and I got it then, but I see it for myself now. As well, the music is quite evocative of cartoon features of a different age, and sometimes comes very close to evoking Looney Tunes incidental music.

My first instinct was to say that the messages of the movie are what makes it resonate, but there’ve been a lot of bad and forgettable movies with messages of “friendship is good, guns are bad, be yourself, help others, your past doesn’t define you”. What makes it effective is the execution. This story is not just character driven, but the characters express real emotion and profound thoughts that manage to all align to create a package of concentrated Feelings. It’s no wonder Pixar incorporated Brad Bird into their inner circle of creatives after this.

As the 1950s setting evokes a kind of nostalgia for a lost age of childhood, the movie is itself nostalgia for a generation, as it now approaches 20 years since its release. I’m sure that there are professional animators now who were inspired by this opus, and hopefully many of them are actually getting to do something close enough to that to satisfy them, as the market has moved away from traditional animation with any real budget for artistic flair. Being an inspiration is probably the highest honor a work of art can aspire to, and this is certainly one that has inspired careers as well as daily lives.

Find the Lady

Find the Lady.  Quadrant Films 1976.

Before watching the movie:

This is an old and (perhaps deservedly) forgotten movie from the early days of John Candy’s career. I’ve seen two wildly different posters for it, it was released under different titles, and his character has a partner the promotional material doesn’t care about because the partner didn’t become as famous as Candy.

So, my time would probably be better spent watching SCTV sketches, but here we are.

After watching the movie:

With the police force stretched thin, the chief wants to resolve the kidnapping of prominent businessman Lewenhak’s daughter Victoria quickly, and puts seasoned officer Broom on the case. Inexplicably, the otherwise competent Broom is the only one on the force who likes young oaf Kopek, and requests him as his partner. As it happens, Lewenhak planned the kidnapping with mafia thugs so he could use money from Victoria’s inheritance as “ransom” to pay off his own gambling debts. Only the thugs grabbed the wrong girl. And Victoria has run off with her boyfriend. And then gotten kidnapped by someone else. Now Lewenhak is trying to coordinate his business with the mobsters while allowing Broom and Kopek to tap his phone.

This seems like it’s mostly moving from one slapstick setup to another, yet it doesn’t actually have many showstopping slapstick gags. The plot is farcical, Kopek is a clumsy idiot, and Mickey Rooney is a goon frustrated that he doesn’t get to kill anybody, and nothing really comes together the way it seems like it should. Little makes sense beyond “this is supposed to be funny”. Sometimes it is funny. Sometimes I can just see what they were trying for.

One of the subplots is that Victoria is supposed to be an opera singer, but wants to be a cabaret performer, and is good at neither, and through that, a burlesque troupe gets involved. The comedy of mixing Broom and Kopek with them seems to be meant to come from how uncomfortable Broom is about everything. Even though the choreographer is a gay-coded man who refuses to stop dressing in drag once he starts, unless the punchline is simply “man in a dress, rimshot”, and given the quality of the writing and the time it was made, it’s entirely possible that’s what was meant, I think the jokes are mainly on Broom.

John Candy’s retroactive star power puts too much focus on the police investigators, but even so, they seem to be meant as stronger leads than they end up being. I was most interested in Lewenhak’s compounding problems, and I would’ve preferred a version where he was a proper Villain Protagonist, because he’s the most central character to the bumbling kidnappers plot that drives the story. And also because it would give Peter Cook more to do.

This movie was simply a waste of potential. It needed a few more rewrites before going into production. It fails at being a vehicle for the lead characters that were apparently established in a previous movie. It fails at holding interest. It often fails at being funny. The concept could’ve been a hoot, but it needed a lot of punching up.

The Survivors

The Survivors. Rastar Films 1983.

Before watching the movie:

It’s almost certainly just the snow and the 80s design aesthetic, but the poster makes me think of Spies Like Us a lot more than I should be.

Basically, these two New Yorkers lose their jobs the same week and their personality clash as they keep running into each other escalates to absurdity. Matthau and Williams may not seem compatible, but the central conceit is that they’re not compatible, so this could be a peanut butter and chocolate kind of combination.

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Ed and his Dead Mother

Ed and his Dead Mother. ITC Entertainment 1993.

Before watching the movie:

This was not well-released, not well-received, and perhaps not well made. But it looks fun enough, unless they managed to choke the fun out of it in the poor execution.

Steve Buscemi seems to be intended to be the most normal character in the story, which is a strange concept to me. He’s long been leaning into the eccentric roles his features attract, but I think he might be the straight man here.

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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Four Square Productions 1978.

Before watching the movie:

I always knew that this was a horror spoof, but I didn’t realize it was a musical. It’s already under 90 minutes, and there are songs in it, so the plot will probably be very thin. But how much plot can be gotten out of running from murderous fruiting vines? Three sequels and a cartoon series, apparently.

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