|Charcoal, the Janitor
|Released by Paramount Pictures | Directed By Clyde Bruckman
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Someone gets called a ‘pansy’.
- There’s a ritzy ‘Emperor’s Club’ where everyone enjoys getting sloshed.
Feet First: And Safety… Oh, Well, You Know
“That’s not personality. That’s stupidity!”
I’ve always found it interesting the backlash there seems to be towards silent comedians and their talkies. Buster Keaton’s are universally (and usually correctly) reviled, Harold Lloyd’s are ignored save for Movie Crazy, and Charlie Chaplin’s talkies seem to be often discussed as begrudged masterpieces (except Monsieur Verdoux, weirdly the only picture of his that I really like). Feet First by both its title and content draw immediate comparisons to Lloyd’s Safety Last. For Lloyd, remaking his silent masterpiece was certainly a no-brainer. Silent films were already being tossed into dustbins in 1930, and the idea of silent film revivals and widespread preservation was going to be a few decades off. If Harold Lloyd was going to be known and relevant in 1930, it was going to have to be in a talkie.
So in those circumstances, why not redo his blockbuster Safety Last? Hell, nowadays it could just be labeled as a ‘reboot’ and we’d be done talking about this.
But, as weird as this may sound to some of you, there are seismic differences between silent comedy and talkie comedy. I’d say the gulf is about as vast as the difference between radio comedy and film comedy; there is minor overlap, but the gags have different planes they play with, with different results. The addition of sound makes a vast difference in how many gags worked– no longer could Buster Keaton walk directly behind someone by less than a foot or reek havoc a few feet away from an oblivious police officer. When we don’t hear anything, we can understand why the police officer wouldn’t hear anything. When it’s a talkie and Buster Keaton is racing across a backyard on top of a three story ladder while everyone stands a few feet away wondering where that guy went to, it stops working. We’ve watched a whole movie of these people listening to each other; surely they can pick up on the clanging and chaos that we’re hearing, or they’re just rock dumb.
This point is most relevant to the end of Feet First, which as mentioned ends with Harold Lloyd trying to frantically get down from a skyscraper after he’s accidentally lifted up by a window washer’s carriage. You can put the Safety Last version next to this and do a fun little compare and contrast: is the movie that much different when we can hear Harold’s screams and frantic shouts? Does the scene become unfunny because his ability to vocalize his terror becomes frightfully more real? Not necessarily, but there’s a definite visceral difference between the two sequences.
What talkies lost in terms of dream logic, they gained, however, in wit and wordplay. Feet First has the benefit of being Lloyd’s second sound film, and it’s obvious that he’s trying to find a way to straddle that line. There are lengthy jokes that could only work with sound such as when Lloyd plays with audience expectations by using a record player to simulate applause or later a ringing bell that drives everyone a little cuckoo. Unlike Buster Keaton, who became absorbed into the MGM apparatus and had lost his voice by the time talkies came around (rimshot), Lloyd was a true independent who got to make the movie he wanted his way, and he plays with both his strengths and his new frontiers. That makes Feet First perhaps the most fascinating piece of bridgework between the two comedy schools out there.
As mandated by the Film Reviewers School of Making Sure People Are Reading About the Right Movie, Feet First‘s plot is thus: Harold is a junior shoe salesman in Honolulu. He meets and falls for a girl named Barbara who he mistakenly assumes is his boss’ daughter– she’s instead only his secretary. However, the girl assumes he’s rich. This leads to a series of misunderstandings (as I’m sure you can imagine) which see him on an ocean liner heading towards the States. When he finds out that his boss needs a letter to get to the States in a hurry, he stows away in a mailbag and reaches Los Angeles quickly– only to accidentally be hoisted up onto a skyscraper.
The result doesn’t feel exactly fresh, and it doesn’t help a whole lot that the first sixty minutes of the film (I know I’ve watched too many pre-Codes when 90 minutes feels like an eternity) is filled with warmed over silent-movie gags and intermittently interesting attempts to bridge the gap. One of the biggest problems may be that Lloyd’s ‘character’– the good looking go-getter boy next door– feels completely out of step with the times. The stock market crash in 1929 helped sour that idea of the good, honest self made man. By 1931, heroes would look more like James Cagney and Clark Gable– men with an ‘edge’. While I love Lloyd’s character to death, he has no edge. He’s merely a square.
It also doesn’t help that Harold Lloyd– how I can I put this– has aged. Lloyd was pushing 40 when Feet First was filmed, and watching a 40-year-old man treat his life like an overenthusiastic 20-year-old can create a certain distance. It unintentionally makes the hero seem just slightly more pathetic. I’ve always loved the comedian and his work– his smile saves the picture more often than most of the jokes, but I think the cinematic version of Harold just wasn’t ripe any more.
There’s other issues, too. The romantic interest, Barbara, is straight out of silent movie heaven– no personality but a pretty smile. The worst of it, though, has to be Willie Best– credited here as “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” which we can get into below– as the hapless janitor trying to help Harold get into the skyscraper he’s dangling on. Best’s characters were usually the prototypical lazy/dumb black man stereotype, and here it’s no different. His character of ‘Charcoal’ often only exacerbates Harold’s problems, and while it’s funny on occasion, the character’s intelligence is so dialed down that it’s still painful to watch.
All of this makes Feet First a movie of two eras, an emblematic piece of how comedy tastes and ideas were changing, not just from a technical perspective (talkie vs sound) but from a cultural one as well. With the talkies were coming the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Wheeler & Woolsey, and a host of other vaudevillians ready to push the screen to a new level of insanity. Feet First is a gallant try to stay ahead of the pack, but unfortunately it just serves to underscore how much Harold Lloyd had gone out of style, whether he wanted to or not
Trivia & Links
- TCMDB is pretty down on this one, noting that test audiences reacted to Lloyd’s climactic building climb with horror rather than amusement thanks to sound. This story that caps the review is both interesting and pretty sad:
When Lloyd sold Feet First to television in 1953, the film became a victim of changing times in another way. The picture had marked the screen debut of black comic Willie Best, an accomplished stage actor forced toplay demeaning roles in Hollywood films. He was initially billed as Sleep’N’ Eat to play up the studio’s insulting claim that he actually enjoyed humiliating himself and didn’t want money for his work, just three square meals and a warm place to sleep. By 1953, this type of stereotyping was fast falling out of favor. As a result, Lloyd cut almost 20 minutes out of Feet First to eliminate much of its by-then dated racist humor.
- Jay Seaver at eFilmCritic likes it, noting “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.”
- Cliff at Immortal Ephemera has a piece on the film’s co-star, Barbara Kent, when she passed away in 2011. Her most widely remembered role is that of ‘the good girl’ in Garbo’s Flesh and the Devil (1926). She retired from acting in 1935, never really feeling it was for her.
- Dr. Macro has a plot summary as well as some amazing stills and posters from the movie.
- Mordaunt Hall’s review in The New York Times (second one down) is his usual ‘recount the gags’ style of writing. He does say, “No matter how foolish this farce becomes, it virtually defies any spectator to sit through it without laughing.”
- One of my favorite bits of trivia, and it has nothing specifically to do with this film, is that Harold Lloyd’s life would later inspire the creators of the Superman comic in devising his disguise as Clark Kent. Lloyd’s ability to be unrecognizable in public without his trademark circular glasses gave the writers the idea that Clark could get away with an equally simple disguise– I mean, who would think the most powerful man in the world would spend his downtime dressing up like a dweeb?
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon as part of the second volume of the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection. Also on the disk is Lloyd’s iconic The Freshman (1925) and, one of my favorites of his silent films, Dr. Jack (1922).
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Cliff Aliperti · July 18, 2014 at 1:58 am
Thanks, as always, for the link, Danny! I think most of my info in that Barbara Kent post came from Michael G. Ankerich’s compilation of interviews/biographies, The Sound of Silence — it was the go-to source for most of the news outlets when Kent passed mostly because there’s not too much else out there and the author had met and spoke with Kent, one-on-one, just as he had all of the other subjects inside his book. Anyway, wanted to give his book a plug here because Mary Brian, Edith Fellows, William Janney and Anita Page are also included among 16 stars total who made the transition from silents to early talkies and are covered inside. Good stuff!
Danny · July 20, 2014 at 9:03 am
Good info, Cliff. Thanks!
Emily · July 18, 2014 at 2:56 am
Of the sound films of the Holy Trinity of Silent Comedians, I’ve seen all the MGM Keaton talkies (I may never recover from seeing my favorite actor/director in such schlock) and two of Chaplin’s (unlike you, I didn’t care for Verdoux, but I’m willing to try again). I’ve never seen any of Lloyd’s, though I’ve heard good feedback for Movie Crazy and The Milky Way. They certainly look less painful than the likes of Free and Easy or the preachier segments of Chaplin’s sound oeuvre.
Danny · July 20, 2014 at 9:08 am
I’ve heard good things about Movie Crazy, but I think that’s mostly because its climax is so good. The rest of the movie is only so-so. I love Lloyd’s silent films, but all of his talkies leave me cold.
Canais Young · April 22, 2018 at 11:32 am
“Charlie Chaplin’s talkies seem to be often discussed as begrudged masterpieces (except Monsieur Verdoux, weirdly the only picture of his that I really like).”
I thought “The Great Dictator” was, at least, liked because of his speech at the end (and, of course, milking the comedy of the fact that he looks similar to Hitler for all its worth).
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