The Oscar-nominated “Hugo” delights in giving audiences a lesson in film history, but there’s one key to the movie that doesn’t quite get the same screen time as the silent filmmaker George Melies, and that’s the silent filmmaker Harold Lloyd.
Internet to the rescue.
While “Hugo” is more or less about Melies, who lived from 1861 to 1938 and paid for, conceptualized, directed, photographed and starred in most of his 500-odd films — including the iconic science fiction short “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902 — its obsession with giant clocks and own iconic dangling-from-a-giant-clock set piece borrows from quite a different source: Lloyd’s 1923 comedy, “Safety Last.”
While Melies is worthy of adoration for his magician’s cleverness in pioneering stage and film techniques, Lloyd is worthy of awe for what he went through physically to achieve his comedy. In 1923 there was no green screen to create the illusion he was a dozen stories up the side of a building, and there were no computer graphics to erase the cables keeping him safe from falling. Like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd did his own stunts and had literally no safety net in case things went wrong. Lloyd really climbed a building for “Safety Last” (despite lacking his right thumb and index finger since another stunt gone wrong in 1919) and dangled with only minor fakery from a clock face. (Also, in a single sequence of the climb he was replaced by his “assistant director,” Robert A. Golden.) While Lloyd had a scaffold and mattress set up below, it would not have saved him from a fall.
While “Hugo” tries to stun by making liberal use of computer-generated visual effects, it is truly awesome to see Lloyd literally risking his life and being so skillful, dextrous and funny at the same time — and to recognize how he and others of his era were inventing cinema as they went. In the 1927 film “Wings,” which was the first Academy Award winner for best picture, the actors had to learn to fly and take part in World War I-style dogfights, since the only way to film such scenes were to affix cameras to planes.
You can be awed for free via YouTube, where the full one hour and 13 minutes of “Safety Last” has been posted in handsome black and white. Embedding is disabled, so just click here to watch.
It is silent, though, despite the music credit that appears before the movie itself gets rolling. My advice is to find an hour-plus of instrumental or mostly lyric-free music on your iTunes and set it on random play; I watched “Safety Last” to a random, overlapping playlist of songs from four albums by the spooky Liverpool band Clinic. (Anyone who remembers watching “The Wizard of Oz” to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” will be happy to hear that you’ll find some pretty cool coincidental synchronicities and segues no matter what music you put to a movie.)
“Hugo” is playing at Loews Harvard Square.