You oughta know this by now, but we can’t get enough old movies — on DVD, on Turner Classic Movies, anywhere we can find them. With all the old movies we get to see, however, it’s a shame that we rarely get the chance to see them as they were originally shown. This past weekend, Christopher, some friends and I got the privilege to experience a silent film the way it would have been shown back in the ’20s, on a big screen with live musical accompaniment. The film was Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd, presented as part of a series of silent film screenings shown at the beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix.
The film itself was so much fun, and there is a lot more to it than Lloyd’s famous “hanging off a clock” scene. Lloyd plays one of his usual cheerful small town boys here, one that must find a job in the big city so that he can afford to marry his best girl (Mildred Davis, who later became the real Mrs. Harold Lloyd). Although he finds employment as a department store clerk, Lloyd finds that he has to exaggerate his position so his girl won’t leave him. Eventually he devises a promotional scheme to have a “human fly” climb outside the huge department store, a plan that goes awry when Lloyd has to sub for his stuntman pal. This fast-paced romp was a great vehicle for Lloyd’s gift for perfect physical comedy, and the film is brimming with several clever bits that utilize it (Lloyd and his roommate turning themselves into hanging coats to avoid their landlady, for instance). The scenes of Lloyd climbing up that building are beautifully done, and what’s more you get a lot of breathtaking aerial views of downtown Los Angeles streets with their trolley cars and lack of crosswalks or stoplights. The showing had live accompaniment on the huge pipe organ that was part of the Orpheum restoration. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill organ — it’s huge! The score was magnificently played by local legend Ron Rhode, whom I remember playing a similarly gigantic instrument at Organ Stop Pizza not far from where I grew up. His presence made the evening doubly nostalgic for this whippersnapper.
Although the showing we attended was fun, it was also sparsely attended with only about 20% of the theatre’s seats filled. What’s more, the audience was, well, old. I only saw a few dozen people who looked under 40, and precious few children (which is a shame, since I think young kids would get a big kick out of this particular movie). The presentation was hosted by a local community college professor who lacked the gravity of a Robert Osborne. I was also disappointed with the lack of accompanying vintage shorts which were at the last showing we attended. Despite all that, it was a fun evening. The Orpheum really needs to get better p.r. people so the younger generation (and trust me, they’re out there) can enjoy vintage movies the way they ought to be seen.