Well folks, it’s time to get silly again here on the Cinematic Century. Actually, we’re going to be having a streak of fun comedies over the next few weeks, which is always fun. 1923 was a kind of awkward year for this project, one where I really didn’t have a lot of choices. Yeah, I could have gone with Lon Chaney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, or maybe even a rather slight Chaplin short called the Pilgrim. But, in probably the only instance of this ever happening, when given the choice between a Charlie Chaplin flick and a Harold Lloyd one, I had to go with Lloyd. When talking about the comedies of the silent era you usually hear that there were three masters, each with their own specialties. Charlie Chaplin had the heart, Buster Keaton has the impressive physical stunts, and Harold Lloyd was the most marketable. I’ve never been the biggest Harold Lloyd fan, feeling like his films tended to be a little middle-of-the-road. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. His films were usually feel-good comedies that didn’t have the style and skill that I associate with Chaplin or Keaton, but are usually good for a laugh or two.
Except for this film. This film really is something special. It’s the film that most people associate with Lloyd, and the iconography from this film are probably what he’ll always be most known for. This is the only time that Lloyd will be featured on this project, and it’s a damn good film to feature. Yeah, as with most Lloyd films I can’t help but feel like the film would be a tad better if it was made by either Chaplin or Keaton, but it’s still a very fun movie. The stunts weren’t exactly overly impressive, and the famous clock scene isn’t actually as death-defying as we’re shown it to be, which is probably better for everyone involved, but I can’t help feeling that Buster Keaton would have dangled himself off a skyscraper if he needed to. But, regardless of those minor quibbles, it makes sense that this is the film that Lloyd will be remembered for, because it’s certainly his finest work, and the film that most plays to his strengths. And it’s not too shabby to be remembered for such an important and classic moment in film history as the clock scene.
Safety Last! tells the story of a young man, who is also known as Harold Lloyd. Harold lives in the small town of Great Bend who is preparing to head off for bigger and better things. Harold is about to take the train to Los Angeles, where he’s certain he’ll become an instant success, and send for his girlfriend, who only gets known as “the Girl.” And, after a bumpy egress from his hometown that involved almost accidentally kidnapping a child and then climbing about a random wagon instead of the train, he finally gets to Los Angeles and begins his new life. And things don’t go very well. Harold has gotten himself a job at the prestigious De Vore Department Store, but he finds that he spends most of his paycheck on trinkets that he can’t afford to send home to his girlfriend in the hopes that he convinces her things are going well. He lives with a skyscraper construction worker named “Limpy” Bill, and the two lead pretty meager lives, just scraping by.
And, one day while goofing off, Harold discovers an interesting ability of his friend Bill. Because when Harold recognizes an old friend from his hometown as a police-officer in Los Angeles, he decides to pull a little prank. He tells Bill to push over the cop, promising that he has the clout to make it go away. However, he makes a mistake and Bill ends up pushing the wrong cop, earning a nemesis. But, Bill has gained a skill at climbing buildings, so he’s able to scurry up a nearby building and escape the police officer. But that doesn’t make a big impression on Harold at first, because he has bigger problems. His life at the De Vore Department store is pretty rough, dealing with the interminable floor manager Mr. Stubbs, and the endless onslaught of rude old women who frequent his department, which sells rolls of fabric. And, to make things even more awkward, it turns out that his ruse worked far better than he ever could have hoped, because his girlfriend has arrived in Los Angeles, assuming that the gifts he’s been sending her were a sign that she should come out to begin their life.
Harold tries to lie to her, pretending that he’s a big shot at the De Vore Store, but it quickly becomes exhausting. He manages to convince the Girl that he’s now the General Manager of the store, and after some shenanigans where he does his best to keep the charade up, he tells the Girl to go to her hotel, and that they’ll get married the next day. But, before he does that, the needs to get some money. Luckily, he overhears from the real general manager that he’s willing to pay someone $1,000 for an idea to increase the visitors of the store. And Harold has an idea. When Bill climbed the building to escape the cop quite a crowd gathered to gawk, so Harold makes a deal with the general manager and Bill, planning to have a mysterious stranger climb the building that the Store is inside of. Unfortunately, while the Store begins advertising the event, the cop realizes it must be his nemesis who will climb the building, and arrives to catch him. So, when Harold and Bill recognize the cop they realize they need to do something weird. Harold is going to have to climb the building, and when he gets high enough to lose the cop, Bill will switch places with him. Unfortunately, the cop is very tenacious, and Harold ends up having to climb the entire building, while a crowd comes to watch. Including the Girl. Harold climbs the building, dealing with mocking children, furious pigeons, nets, construction workers, a photoshoot, and of course the infamous clock. But, eventually, Harold reaches the roof of the building, and finds the Girl waiting for him, where they’ll presumably have to deal with the fact that their entire marriage will be built on lies.
Safety Last! is not a particularly deep film, but it’s still a lot of fun. Harold Lloyd’s greatest skills were those related to his physical comedy, and her really puts it all on display in this film. Lloyd goofs off the whole film, packing as many silly gags and stunts into the film as he possibly can. He’s basically a live-action cartoon, and while the film does occasionally skimp on the plot, it certainly delivers on the comedy. But this isn’t really a film that needs to focus on the plot. The love between Harold and the Girl seems very superficial, and the film really is more built on setpieces rather than a real narrative. Which normally is a big problem for me, but in this film it works. Safety Last! kind of feels like the fore bearer of big-budget crowd-pleasers. Chaplin could pluck the heart-strings, and Keaton could make your jaw-drop at his skill, but Lloyd had an absolutely shocking joke-rate. His films are gag machines, tossing out as many funny scenarios and jokes as possible, and paying them all off. Lloyd was an extremely gifted physical-performer, and every frame of this film shows off that innate talent. Safety Last! is one of the most enduring films of the silent era, and deserves to be the crowning achievement in Lloyd’s career.
Safety Last! was written by Jean Havez and Harold Lloyd, directed by Fred C Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, and released by Pathe Exchange, 1923.
Categories: Cinematic Century