Harold Lloyd occupies a pretty thankless position in silent cinema. While often listed as one of the three big stars of silent comedy, he is frequently overshadowed by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, despite being just as innovative as Keaton and more prolific than Chaplin. Part of this is certainly due to his persona, which is a lot harder to pin down than the others. Lloyd’s screen character was essentially an everyman, often lovelorn, who invariably finds himself out of his depth. Maybe a touch too subtle for audiences, he nevertheless made an indelible mark on silent cinema with Safety Last!
Lloyd’s crowning achievement in film-making, this is a technical marvel that juggles vaudeville comedy with slapstick and death-defying stunts and features one of silent cinemas most impressive set-pieces. Lloyd plays an idealistic young man who sets off to make his way in the city, promising his fiancée (Mildred Davis) he will only send for her when he can support them both. This proves trickier than expected and he soon finds himself struggling as a salesclerk in a department store, earning a pittance while pretending to his fiancée that he’s a success. This backfires when she comes to visit, and Lloyd uses every trick he knows to keep her from learning the truth.
For the most part, Safety Last! plays out as a quintessential silent comedy, for good and for ill. The vaudeville routines are charming, but unlikely to win over anyone who isn’t already interested in silent cinema. It’s a shame, because the jokes themselves are executed perfectly, and show Lloyd’s innate understanding of filmmaking. Sequences like Lloyd disguising himself as a coat on a coatrack to evade his landlady, or the inventive way he sneaks into work late by impersonating a mannequin. Best of these is the shop floor sequence, where a frenzied Lloyd throws gags left right and centre with an impressive hit rate.
There are also some brilliant examples of visual storytelling on display. One scene shows the penniless Lloyd having to choose between buying a present for his fiancée or his own lunch, and the conflict is conveyed perfectly. As Lloyd pays the pawnbroker, we see the image of his lunch projected in his mind, with an item disappearing the more money he hands over. He also has fun with the title cards as a character runs into the distance the font gets smaller and smaller!
These scenes make for a technically excellent, if modest slapstick comedy. This all changes in the film’s climax where Lloyd attempts to scale the 12-storey department store building, in one of the all-time great scenes of silent cinema. It proved to be hugely influential (referenced in films such as The Hudsucker Proxy, Back To The Future, and Project A) Truly deserving of its status, it’s still breathtakingly tense viewing today, as Lloyd is beset by perilous obstacles on each level, from a bird landing on his head, to a plank of wood swinging out of a window, to getting his feet tangled in a cable.
In the same way as Chaplin‘s potato dance and the building falling on Keaton, the shot of Harold Lloyd hanging off the clock face is one of the most iconic images of silent comedy, and film itself. The climb itself is obviously the most nail-biting sequence, but the rest of the film is just as impressive; meticulously planned and executed to the most minute detail, making Safety Last! one of silent cinemas most enduring comedies.
The new 2K digital film restoration looks brilliant, crisp and clear throughout, and there is a choice of two musical scores – both of which fit the film perfectly. The film also comes with a commentary featuring Leonard Maltin and Richard Correll; an introduction by Suzanne Lloyd; A documentary from 1989 entitled Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius; a new documentary, Locations and Effects; and three newly restored Lloyd shorts: Take a Chance, Young Mr. Jazz, and His Royal Slyness, with commentary by Correll and John Bengtson.