Safety Last!

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
Screenplay: Hal Roach & Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan; titles by H.M. Walker
Stars: Harold Lloyd (The Boy), Mildred Davis (The Girl), Bill Strother (The Pal), Noah Young (The Law), Westcott B. Clarke (The Floorwalker)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1923
Country: U.S.
Safety Last! Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Safety Last!It is one of the most iconic images of film comedy, and quite possibly the most iconic image of the silent era: Harold Lloyd, with his round owl glasses and straw hat, dangling perilously from the hands of a clock on the side of a towering building in downtown Los Angeles. Even those who have no interest in silent comedies and may not even know who Harold Lloyd is will probably recognize this often reproduced image, whose storied place in the iconography of popular culture remains unshakeable. Yet, what is most compelling about this image is not the power, both humorous and thrilling, that it continues to embody in and of itself, but rather how it singularly embodies so perfectly the intertwined sense of humor and social anxiety in Safety Last!, the film in which it appears.

Those who see the image without having seen the film itself probably don’t ask themselves how Lloyd’s character (who is billed as “The Boy,” but is referred to as Harold throughout the story) got himself into that precarious predicament in the first place. His hanging from the side of a building is the climactic quintessence of the film’s singular focus on the desperation of social and financial advancement and the shame of falling short. Safety Last! is essentially a small-mouse-in-the-big-city tale, in which Harold leaves his family and beloved girlfriend Mildred (Mildred Davis, whom Lloyd married just before the film’s premiere) behind in the small burg of Great Bend to make it big in Los Angeles. He promises to send for Mildred once he’s made his fortune so they can be properly married, but he quickly finds that success is difficult to achieve. Both he and his friend “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother, a real-life human fly whose exploits inspired the film) are in dire straits, although Harold compounds the issue by pretending that he is financially successful, sending Mildred expensive presents financed by pawning his meager possessions and misleading letters about his managerial importance and wealth.

In truth, Harold is barely scraping by working as a salesclerk at a downtown department store, which is humorously depicted as a barely controlled den of chaos in which shoppers descend on him en masse, demanding his attention and, at one point, literally ripping the coat off his back in the process. Harold is hard-working and attentive, but like many tragicomic figures, he is beset by constant misfortune. At one point he is almost late to work because he is accidentally trapped in the back of a laundry truck, and at work his diligence is constantly undermined by Stubbs (Westcott B. Clarke), a petty mid-level-manager looking for his own advancement. When Mildred unexpectedly shows up at the department store, Harold must put on a grand display to convince her that he is the store’s manager, rather than a meager salesclerk, which entails all manner of clever misdirection and subterfuge (at one point he must continue pretending to be the manager in the manager’s office with the actual manager present).

Harold’s dangling from the side of the building is the direct result of his plan to create a major event to draw attention to the department store after he overhears the manager complaining about the store’s lack of marketing and how he would give $1,000 to anyone who could draw crowds to the front door. Harold’s original idea is to have Bill, who had earlier climbed up a building to escape an angry police officer (Noah Young), scale the side of the department store as a mysterious “human fly,” but when the still-angry police officer shows up at the event, it falls on Harold to be the “Mystery Man” who will scale the building, despite being somewhat clumsy and having no climbing experience. Yet, in the extended sequence that comprises the film’s thrilling climax, Harold does indeed scale the building, putting on a demonstration of physical strength, flexibility, and ingenuity that is always coupled with a comical goofiness that has us simultaneously laughing and gasping in awe. It is one of the great feats of physical comedy, and it was something that Lloyd had been building toward for several years after having helped pioneer the “comic thrill” subgenre in films such as High and Dizzy (1920). In this regard, Safety Last! is viewed by many as Lloyd’s crowning achievement, the greatest film by a consummate perfectionist whose comic stardom had him besting both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the box office in the early 1920s (he also made more films than both of those comic icons combined, although he was forgotten for several decades because his films fell out of circulation and did not play on television in the ’50s and ’60s).

The building ascent is giddy vertiginous comedy at its finest, and even though history has eventually revealed the various tricks Lloyd employed to create the illusion of constant physical danger (for decades it was believed that he genuinely scaled the building, rather than elaborate façades built on the roofs of several different buildings), it remains one of the most suspenseful sequences ever committed to film. The fact that everything was done for real in-camera (no process shots or miniatures here) gives the sequence a truly dizzying physicality.

But, beyond the illusory tricks and aesthetics of the building climb, the sequence crackles because there is so much at stake. Far from being an extended gag divorced from the narrative proper, Harold’s dangerous ascent is the manifestation of his desperation for upward mobility, without which he fears he will lose Mildred and, therefore, his legitimacy. Every foot that he clamors up the side of the building, grasping at jutting bricks and swinging himself over wide ledges while dealing with pesky pigeons, a rambling rodent, and gawking onlookers hanging out the windows, is not just another instance of avoiding death or serious bodily injury, but a measure of his social anxiety and need to prove himself. The climb has both comic and dramatic weight because it is both a thrilling exercise in physical humor and a thematically rich evocation of the pressures men feel to succeed, lest they be viewed as less than a man; his recognizable desire for upward mobility is literalized, made physically, not just socially, harrowing. The fact that Lloyd’s character is a slightly goofy, bespectacled nerd of less-than-imposing physicality makes his eventual triumph all the more rewarding, as he successfully tackles both the skyline of downtown Los Angeles and his own insecurities.

Safety Last! Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Safety Last! is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by film critic Leonard Maltin and director and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll
  • Introduction by Suzanne Lloyd, Lloyd’s granddaughter and the president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment
  • Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989) documentary
  • Three newly restored Lloyd shorts: Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919), and His Royal Slyness (1920), with commentary by Correll and film writer John Bengtson
  • “Locations and Effects” featurette
  • Video interview with composer Carl Davis
  • Essay by critic Ed Park
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 18, 2013

    Criterion’s restored 2K digital transfer of Safety Last! was made from a 35mm nitrate print struck from the original negative borrowed from Harold Lloyd’s personal collection. Several different software packages were used to remove extensive signs of age, wear, and dirt, as well as to stabilize the image and reduce jitter (it is presented in a variable frame rate of approximately 22 frames per second, which looks generally natural except when the action is purposefully sped up for comic effect). The results are genuinely amazing, especially when compared with most earlier video releases of the film. The high-definition image is wonderfully sharp and detailed (in one close-up of Lloyd’s hands holding his pay stub, you can make out the fine lines of his finger prints). Most evidence of age and damage are long gone, with only light scratching and a few dropped frames to remind us that the film is now 90 years old. Criterion has also included a choice of two different musical scores: one by composer Carl Davis from 1989, which has been synchronized and restored under his supervision and is presented in uncompressed stereo, and an alternate score by organist Gaylord Carter from the late 1960s, which is presented in uncompressed monaural. Both soundtracks are great, although I prefer Davis’s composition, since I tend to favor full orchestral scores over organ scores.
    Criterion’s edition of Safety Last! offers not only a first-rate presentation of the film itself, but also the equivalent of a master class on Harold Lloyd and his significance to film comedy. Specific to the film itself is an informative and entertaining audio commentary by film critic Leonard Maltin and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll, which previously appeared on New Line’s “Harold Lloyd: Comedy Collection” DVD from 2005; a 17-minute introduction to the film by Suzanne Lloyd, Lloyd’s granddaughter and the president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment, who speaks at length about the actor’s life and legacy, as well as her personal experiences growing up in his home; “Locations and Effects,” a 20-minute featurette in which film writer John Bengtson and visual-effects expert Craig Barron discuss the visual tricks that Lloyd employed to create the illusion of his crawling on the side of a 12-story building (it also doubles as an intriguing history of the changing face of downtown Los Angeles); and a new video interview with composer Gaylord Carter. For those new to Lloyd’s cinema, you can’t do much better than the 108-minute two-part television documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989) by silent film scholar Kevin Brownlow and film historian and preservationist David Gill, which covers the entirety of Lloyd’s career and features clips from his most famous films. And, as if that weren’t enough, the disc also manages to fit in three newly restored Lloyd shorts—Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919), and His Royal Slyness (1920), all of which feature optional commentary by Correll and Bengtson.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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