When “Safety Last!,” directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, premiered in 1924, audiences paid $4 to see the silent romantic comedy. In a move that defied inflation, on Jan. 19, 2014, the Granada Theater offered modern audiences a chance to see the newly restored digital film for the reasonable price of $0. Accompanied by live, improvised piano, this community screening inaugurated Granada Theater’s new digital projection system.
“Safety Last!,” starring silent film star Harold Lloyd, was the first film the Granada Theater screened with their new digital projection system. Since the 19th century, film and 35 mm has been the medium of choice in presenting cinema, but the switch to digital is imminent. Studios are beginning to release films only in digital format; Paramount Pictures was the first major studio to do so with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and Granada Theater has joined the movement to include digital.
The film drew in a large, diverse crowd of people, including University of California, Santa Barbara students, families, and couples looking for a way to spend their Martin Luther King Day weekend. The lighthearted antics of Lloyd appealed to everyone, though one elderly woman mentioned not enjoying the anxious feelings that came from watching Lloyd scale a tall building and dangling off the arms of a clock.
“Safety Last!” is a classic romantic comedy that tells the story of a young man who goes to Los Angeles to earn enough money to win the woman of his dreams over. Of course, he hilariously fails to do so and instead chooses to lie about his success, a strategy that works until his love interest decides to surprise him with a visit. Along the way, he tricks an ambulance driver into giving him a ride to work, stumbles when dealing with demanding department store customers, and gets chased by the LA police, who seemed to have been disliked immensely even in 1924. True to the nature of his clumsy, frantic character, Lloyd actually lost three fingers while holding an explosive prop before filming “Safety Last!”
UCSB’s Film & Media Studies professor Charles Wolfe described the film as “California slap-stick,” a genre defined by the early Hollywood boom. Unlike Chaplin and other silent film stars, Lloyd wanted to emphasize the location of the film with advertisements and other details that were specific to California, and he worked heavily with directors Newmeyer and Taylor to achieve this. The landscape was especially characterized by the architecture boom in the United States, giving film stars like Lloyd more material to work with in cities like LA.
Though the film itself was thoroughly enjoyable, the primary source of interest and entertainment came from Michael Mortilla, the pianist who played along with the film. Surprisingly, he approached the grand piano with no sheet music. In spite of this, he delivered a performance that accurately captured the emotions of every actor in the film, and Mortilla kept up perfectly with the comedic movements of Lloyd. Mortilla did not have anything memorized to play; he said that if he were to watch the film and play again 10 minutes after the first screening, he would perform an entirely different piece.
“A lot of it is just motor articulation for me and I do a lot of improvisation,” said Mortialla when asked how he thinks of what to play during a silent film. “I do get cues from the scenes too.”
His piano skills were not formed overnight. Mortilla described how hard he worked to become such a fluid, attentive pianist, saying, “I used to practice 12 hours a day. That’s what you do when you’re unemployed.”
The audience was naturally impressed with Mortilla’s improvisation abilities; however, he described himself as an outcast in the silent film accompaniment community. He said most musicians use silent film as a medium to get their music out, while he mainly improvises. Many people who restore silent films are not interested in improvisation, so he has been looked over as an option more than a few times.
To the haters of improvisation, all Mortilla had to say was, “Their loss.”