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Feet First

Feet First(1930)

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It took Harold Lloyd and his writers nine months to come up with Feet First (1930), his second feature with sound. They had been severely disappointedwith his first sound film, Welcome Danger (1929). Even though ithad done well at the box office, Lloyd felt he had let it become too talky,with lame jokes replacing his usually brilliant sight gags grounded incharacter. To get back on track, they constructed a plot that would lethim re-create one of his most famous silent routines, the perilous climb upa skyscraper in 1923's Safety Last. Whereas in the previous film hehad climbed up a skyscraper to win a fortune, in Feet Firsthe was forced to climb down a building after a series of contrivedaccidents left him stranded near the roof on a painter's scaffold.

As in most of his films, Lloyd plays a bespectacled, gung-ho boy-next-doortype out to make his fortune and win the girl. This time out, he's anambitious shoe store clerk who pretends to be a millionaire to impress thegirl (Barbara Kent) he thinks is the boss's daughter. She isn't, but inthe course of carrying off his masquerade, he stows away aboard a shipheaded to Hawaii, ending up in a mail sack that gets transported to the topof a skyscraper.

Using Kent was probably Lloyd's first mistake. Although shehad scored as the good girl in Garbo's silent Flesh and the Devil (1926),she had been wooden if beautiful in Welcome Danger. She hadn'timproved much by her second (and last) film with Lloyd. Perhaps he wasdetermined to re-capture his magical teamwork with earlier leading ladiesBebe Daniels, Mildred Davis and Jobyna Ralston, all of whom had worked withhim on several films. The one thing she had in common with them was thatshe gave up her career in American films for marriage, though she wasn't asfortunate as Davis, who married the boss and remained Mrs. Lloyd until herdeath in 1969.

Lloyd shot the building-scaling scene just as he had for SafetyLast, creating the illusion that he was about to tumble to his deathwhile the actor was really in no danger. Various parts of the building'sfacade were built on a Los Angeles rooftop, so that he actually wastowering above the city although he had only a few feet to fall. In adeparture from the earlier film, for long shots, stuntman Harvey Parryfilled in for the star, something he had been doing for years. There waslittle attempt to keep these precautions from the press at the time.Publicity for the film even featured shots of the false facade, thoughParry was asked to be discreet about his contribution. As Lloyd's legend grewin later years, however, the myth that he had performed all his own stuntsgrew with it. In deference to the star, Parry did not claim any credituntil after Lloyd's death in 1971.

Duplicating Lloyd's Safety Last stunts with sound seemed like agreat idea at the time -- at least until audiences got a look at it. Aswas often the case with Lloyd's films, he previewed Feet First at agreater length than he intended for the final cut, allowing the audience toshow him what gags needed to stay in and what could be cut. As a result,the climbing sequence ran 30 minutes at the first preview, where it died.For audiences just becoming accustomed to sound films, the addition ofLloyd's panting and cries for help made the scene more excruciating thanfunny, and they stopped laughing quickly. Ultimately, Lloyd cut thesequence to ten minutes, but it only worked in a German theatre, where themanager had the brilliant idea of playing it without sound. The audience'slaughter more than filled the silence. For later generations, however, thesequence stands as one of the funniest in Lloyd's oeuvre.

At the time, however, he considered Feet First another disappointment.It made a profit, bringing in $1.5 million on a $650,000 investment, butthat marked a decline of $750,000 from Lloyd's first talking film. Likefellow silent clowns Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, Lloyd was finding theworld of talking films far from nurturing. He would make only four morefeatures before retiring from acting, though unlike many of hiscontemporaries he had invested wisely enough to rank as one of Hollywood'srichest stars.

When Lloyd sold Feet First to television in 1953, the film became avictim of changing times in another way. The picture had marked the screendebut 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 enjoyedhumiliating himself and didn't want money for his work, just three squaremeals and a warm place to sleep. By 1953, this type of stereotyping was fastfalling out of favor. As a result, Lloyd cut almost 20 minutes out ofFeet First to eliminate much of its by-then dated racisthumor. However, TCM will broadcast the UCLA Film and Television Archive's newly-restored print of the complete 1930 version of Feet First, enabling audiences to see the film in its original form, regardless of its flaws.

Producer: Harold Lloyd
Director: Clyde Bruckman
Screenplay: Felix Adler, Clyde Bruckman, Alfred A. Cohn, John Grey, LexNeal, Paul Girard Smith
Cinematography: Henry Kohler, Walter Lundin
Principal Cast: Harold Lloyd (Harold Horne), Robert McWade (John Tanner),Lillian Leighton (Mrs. Tanner), Barbara Kent (Barbara), Alec B. Francis (Mr.Carson, old-timer), Noah Beery, Sr. (Shoe Store Bit), Sleep 'N' Eat/WillieBest (Janitor).

by Frank Miller

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