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Feet First
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by Jay Seaver

"Feet First, Safety Last - get it?"
3 stars

It says something that within a couple of weeks of seeing "Feet First" in Cambridge's Brattle Theater, I would notice a couple of similar gags (a shoe salesman using the same patter over and over again) re-used in a Korean romantic comedy by the name of "Please Teach Me English!" at Montreal's Fantasia Festival. I'm not sure what it says - that Lloyd influenced filmmakers seventy years later in far-off reaches of the globe? That certain ideas are universal? That the human mind has an astonishing ability to manufacture connections where none exist?

I don't know. I wonder if maybe, in 1930, the first act of this movie felt fresh and exciting. Seventy-five years later, it feels limp, a familiar framework without enough jokes to make up for it. Things do improve after a slow start, and the film's middle act is fitfully funny, even if it seems to draw the premise out for much too long. Still, it gets the movie to the third act, and while that last act is a pretty transparent reprise of the famous Safety Last finale, there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Lots of artists go back to the same wells to do variations on a theme, and this second iteration of Harold climbing a building does offer some new thrills, if no clock faces.

In broad strokes, a lot of Feet First is familiar to Safety Last: Young man represents himself as being higher in the food chain than he is to impress a girl, gets caught in a lot of situations where he has to try to act like an executive without getting fired by the real thing, and winds up on the outside of a building, trying to get someone on the inside to let him in because climbing to the top is a scary proposition. This time, though, Harold Horne (Lloyd) is a stockboy in a Honalulu shoe store, who wishes to be a salesman but is told he has "no personality". After enrolling in the "Personality Plus" correspondence course, he gets the salesman job, but pushes his luck by sneaking his way into an exclusive club. There he meets Barbara (Barbara Kent), a pretty young woman traveling with the owner of the chain of shoe stores in which he works, John Quincy Tanner (Robert McWade). He thinks she's his daughter, so presents himself as a leather baron; in fact, she's actually his secretary. He accidentally winds up on their boat back to Los Angeles without the benefit of a cabin (one gets the feeling that the film is set in Hawaii for the specific purpose of getting the characters on an ocean liner, since you never see anyone who looks Polynesian). When his deception is discovered, Barbara's job is threatened, unless Harold can somehow get a letter delivered before the boat arrives in port. But that's impossible, right?

One of the things that cripples this film early is that Harold's manager is right about him having no personality. He's nice enough, but bland, and after he takes the course, he comes across as sort of an empty suit. His first really funny moment is a little Charlie Chaplin impersonation which kind of comes out of nowehere (I wonder how funny this bit would have been today if Chaplin had lapsed into relative obscurity while Lloyd remained recognized even by casual movie fans). The comedy doesn't really pick up until Harold accidentally winds up stuck on the boat, because at that point we don't need to have the same affection for Harold Horne as an individual: The situation becomes absurd enough that it becomes more of an asset that we can imagine ourselves in Harold's situation without the specifics of his character getting in the way.

When Harold gets on the boat is when Noah Young shows up, playing one of the ship's hands. Young was a character actor who showed up in several of Lloyd's movies (notably Safety Last and Welcome Danger), often playing a cop, usually playing someone who's not so bright. Here, he's a hapless sailor who always seems to be hanging around when Harold needs to upbraid someone for laziness to look convincing as a rich man, or when he needs to trick someone out of their lunch. He doesn't have many actual lines, but he's got a great deadpan look of confusion when necessary (which is often). Another holdover from Safety Last is Barbara Kent, who's not given as many jokes here as she was in that movie, but she's still an asset. She makes her character self-confident enough that we can believe in someone mistaking her for the tycoon's daughter, and also gives her the naïveté to both take Harold at face value and be crushed when she realizes that, despite being taken on a business trip to Hawaii and going shopping with her employer's wife, she is still considered a disposable employee who can be fired over one mistake. To a large extent, our investment in the last act comes more from the threat of Barbara losing her job than that of Harold falling five stories to his death.

As with most of Lloyd's thrill pictures, the last act is the film's centerpiece, and the excitement survives the translation relatively unscathed. Some feel that being able to hear Harold's cries for help takes away from the film by making him look pathetic instead of daring, but I didn't really have any trouble with that. No, it's being able to hear Willie Best, credited as "Sleep 'n' Eat", in one of his first appearances in the sort of cowardly, baby-talking roles that made him famous - or infamous - as a janitor not sure what to do about the guy on the outside of the building. I suppose Best's role isn't much different than Noah Young's, but he's just about the only black person in the film, and the actor played the same sort of role so often that a modern moviegoer can't help but feel uncomfortable watching it (indeed, much of his role would be edited out of the film for years).

What goes on inside the building can mostly be overlooked, though, because what goes on outside is pretty impressive. Many of the same tricks are used as were used in "Safety Last", but the camera pulls further back and the background changes more often, giving the appearance, at least, of a more "real" shoot. It's impressive stuntwork and great editing, with things paced very well indeed. It's a perfect example of how an outstanding final act can make up for what came before not being particularly good.

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originally posted: 08/17/05 10:52:56
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