This 1923 thrill comedy, climaxing in a famous climb up a skyscraper, shows silent comedian Harold Lloyd at his very best.
There are three names considered the greatest and most important in American silent film comedy. Number one is Charlie Chaplin, one of the first superstars in modern history, whose beloved character of the little tramp delighted the world while symbolizing a kind of rebellion against a society ruled by the pompous rich. The second is Buster Keaton, with his deadpan expression and endlessly amazing spectacles and stunts—he became more popular, a legend in fact, long after his career had effectively ended than he was at that time. The third name may not be as well known to you: Harold Lloyd. Lloyd started out as a Chaplin imitator, with a mustache and a silly outfit. But then he put on a pair of big horn-rimmed glasses and a straw hat, and turned into an American everyman, a person about which the audience might think, “Oh, that could be me!” Fan magazine polls indicated that Lloyd was the most popular comic actor of the late 1920s.
Even the greatest comedies sometimes have dull stretches, or bits that don’t work. But Safety Last! from 1923, starring Harold Lloyd and directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, is one of the few that I find almost flawless, with a stream of consistently hilarious, steadily building gags, lasting from beginning to end. Lacking the depth of Keaton or the versatility of Chaplin, Lloyd can sometimes be a let-down. But not here.
He plays a country boy who promises to send for his girl (played by Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s real-life spouse) as soon as he makes his fortune in the city. He finds work as a lowly clerk in a clothing store, but in his letters pretends to be the manager. Then the girl makes a surprise visit, and…well, the plot really doesn’t matter that much. It’s just the framework for a series of jokes and situations that are wildly funny and beautifully timed. It all leads up to the famous climax in which the clerk, who has hired an athletic friend to climb the huge office building as a publicity stunt to help the company, ends up having to make the climb himself. He encounters ever-more ridiculous obstacles, including a flock of pigeons, a painter’s trestle, and a swinging open window. Each gag tops the one that came before—the climb is a masterpiece in itself.
Lloyd’s character—the bespectacled, resourceful, all-American nerd—does not excite laughter in and of himself as much as through the perilous situations he gets into. In the process of developing his style, Lloyd invented a sort of “thrill comedy” where you’re laughing and gasping at the same time. In the climbing sequence, we are always shown the street below, so that the danger seems real. When Lloyd climbs on to a huge clock, and the clock face suddenly detaches, with Lloyd dangling in thin air, the laughter is actually stimulated by the sense of risk. He did all of his own stunts, and there was certainly a platform a couple of stories down to catch him if he fell, but this was a real building on a real street, not a set, and that’s exactly how it feels in the film. To add to one’s amazement, there’s the fact, never publicized at the time, that Lloyd lost a thumb and forefinger in an explosion a few years before, and still maintained his spider-like climbing ability.
The Criterion DVD features a good musical score by Carl Davis—good musical accompaniment is crucial to the enjoyment of a silent film. The picture is wonderfully paced and the humor rarely seems dated. Safety Last‘s reputation as one of the greatest silent comedies turns out to be well deserved.