(1923) Directed by: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; Written by Hal Roach, Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan: Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother and Noah Young
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“…we actually did this, in those days. I was up just as high as you see me in the film.” – Harold Lloyd (excerpt from interview featured in Harold Lloyd, The Third Genius)
It didn’t take much soul-searching or deliberation to figure out what my first entry for Silent September should be. What better film than Safety Last! to inaugurate my month-long exploration of silent cinema?
Compared to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd was the most commercially successful, yet today, compared to his contemporaries, he’s probably the lesser known comic performer. One possible reason is that Keaton and Chaplin had established their stage personas early on, while Lloyd took longer to find his comic voice. Lloyd started out in a variety of dramatic and comedic roles, but first gained prominence in several shorts featuring his slapstick character Lonesome Luke (a virtual knock-off of Chaplin's Little Tramp). He eventually donned his trademark round horn-rimmed spectacles to become “The Glasses Character,” a likeable everyman whom audiences could readily relate to.
Safety Last!, Lloyd’s third full-length feature, was shot in the summer of 1922, but wasn’t released until the middle of 1923, undoubtedly due to the lengthy editing process, dictated by Lloyd’s perfectionistic tendencies. Lloyd was one of the first filmmakers to utilize preview audiences for his movies, which enabled him to fine-tune his movie. After gauging initial audience reaction, he would adjust the film’s pacing and ensure the timing of the gags was just right.
The film begins with one of the most brilliant opening scenes in silent comedy. If you haven't seen Safety Last!, I don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that it perfectly illustrates how a scene’s interpretation can be altered by toying with the audience’s assumptions. Reversing the shot to watch the same scene unfold from a different perspective changes the story and tone change entirely.
Lloyd and his real-life fiancée Mildred Davis play archetypal characters “The Boy” and “The Girl,” respectively. Alternatively, the main characters go by the actors’ real names, Harold (his full name appears on a paycheck) and “Mildred.” This creates the impression that they are portraying themselves, even if their film personas are fabrications. There’s some clever interplay between Lloyd and Davis as The Boy perpetrates an elaborate charade to convince his girlfriend he's a well-to-do general manager at the De Vore Department Store instead of a mere fabric salesman. There are some big laughs as we watch our hapless protagonist endure the cutthroat world of sales, uppity management and persnickety customers. As my wife (Twitter: @ElaineRadley1) is fond of observing, working in retail always sucked. One of the many joys of Safety Last!, is seeing how Lloyd takes a relatively innocuous incident such as trying to get to work on time, and escalates it to a point where it becomes a complicated ballet of errors. In one early scene, he’s accidentally locked away in a delivery truck, and frantically races against the clock and 1920s Los Angeles traffic to reach the department store before it’s too late.
After his girlfriend pays him an unexpected visit from out of town, he’s desperate to find some quick money. When Harold overhears the store’s general manager proclaim he’ll pay $1,000 to anyone who can find a way to bring in more customers, he steps in with an outrageous idea for a stunt. Harold offers his equally penniless friend, played by Bill Strother,* half of the bonus if he’ll agree to climb the department store building. Naturally, things don't quite go as planned, and Harold is forced to make the ascent himself, with every conceivable obstacle in his way. While the climbing scenes involved a modicum of trickery, it was still dangerous to pull off the illusion effectively. A platform was built on the roof of a building, featuring a façade that could simulate the department store. Strother appeared in the long shots, filmed from the side of a building, while Lloyd climbed the façade, which was elevated to the dizzying heights portrayed in the movie. This added a level of realism impossible to duplicate with modern-day green screen effects. The efforts of Lloyd and Strother were even more remarkable, considering the former only had one complete hand* and the latter was recovering from a broken leg.
* Strother, a daredevil stuntman, was no stranger to climbing high structures. Lloyd’s observation of one of his performances allegedly inspired this film.
** Lloyd suffered a serious injury from an explosive prop during the filming of the short “Haunted Spooks” in 1919. As a result, he wore a special glove to conceal the fact that his right thumb and forefinger were missing.
It’s hard to believe that 90 years have elapsed since Safety Last! debuted. Modern audiences can readily identify with his misguided attempts to impress his girlfriend, or the perils of working retail. Watching Lloyd traverse the vertiginous heights of the office building or his iconic clock stunt (witness Jackie Chan’s affectionate homage in Project A) never fails to create a visceral, cringe-worthy sensation. Although Lloyd attempted to top the gags and stunts in subsequent features, Safety Last stands as Lloyd’s masterpiece, ranking among the best comedies (silent or otherwise) of all time.