Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Story and Titles by: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, H.M. Walker
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke
Running Time: 74 min
Harold Lloyd is often thought of as the bronze medalist in his position among the three legends of silent comedy (the others being Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton). However, back in the day Lloyd was actually the most successful of the trio, financially speaking. Some of Chaplin’s films made more money individually but he wasn’t as prolific, so overall Lloyd was the most profitable star at the time with a plethora of hits to his name. Somewhere over time however, his name has lost a little lustre in comparison to those contemporaries. On one of the featurettes here it’s suggested this is down to Lloyd not granting permission for his films (which he owned) to be screened on TV during his lifetime (or at least he asked too much for them), unlike the more widely screened classics of Keaton and Chaplin. When Lloyd’s films did make it to television, after his death, they were largely shown in edited forms, taking out just a handful of gags to produce 30-minute compilation shows.
Over the years, however, Lloyd’s films have been rediscovered and admired for the classics they are. Probably most famous among them is 1923’s Safety Last!, his third feature and one of his most successful. Looking at IMDb, I believe this is the first feature-length masterpiece of the silent comedies of the ‘big three’ too. Chaplin hadn’t yet made The Gold Rush and Keaton’s Our Hospitality came out several months later towards the end of 1923. It was the first Lloyd film I ever saw (in fact I’m ashamed to say I’ve only seen one other, but I shall rectify this soon) and I adored it after that first viewing. With Criterion releasing a stunningly restored new print on Blu-ray, complete with a healthy dollop of extra features, I couldn’t resist giving the film a rewatch and my thoughts are below.
Safety Last! was developed by Lloyd after he saw the ‘human fly’ Bill Strother (who ended up playing a kind of version of himself in the film) scale a building without any safety equipment. Lloyd was thrilled by watching him and thought he could replicate this excitement and milk it for gags on film. So, he took the idea of the building climb as a finale and he and his writers came up with a story that would complement it.
The story is simple but very effective. Lloyd moves to the city to find his fortune, leaving his betrothed (Mildred Davis) back at home in a country town with a promise that he would bring her up there and they would marry once he was a success. His low-paid job at a department store is not going to make him wealthy unfortunately, but he spends his last pennies on extravagant gifts to send back home, so that Mildred thinks he’s on his way up.
This plan backfires when Mildred shows up unexpectedly and Lloyd has to make it look like he’s the boss, rather than a lowly sales clerk. He does a good job of keeping this up and meanwhile comes across a way to finally earn some big money. He overhears his boss saying he’ll pay $1,000 to anyone that can bring 100 new customers to his store. Recently witnessing his housemate and friend Bill (Strother) scaling the outside of a building with ease to escape a policeman (played by Lloyd regular Noah Young), Lloyd has the idea of getting him to climb the department store as a publicity stunt.
Bill and Lloyd’s boss agree to this idea and everything is in place, but a fly lands in the ointment when the aforementioned policeman spots Bill before the event kicks off, meaning Lloyd is forced to start the climb himself, with the idea that the pair of friends would swap on the next floor up. As the policeman keeps up the chase however, the ‘next floor up’ continues to rise, with the inexperienced climber facing every ridiculous obstacle Lloyd’s gagmen can concoct along the way.
Safety Last! has aged remarkably well. Details such as the prices of items on screen date the film of course and you get the usual touch of insensitivity when it comes to race, though less so than a lot of silents I’ve seen. Elsewhere though, there are no pop-culture gags that go over the heads of modern audiences, no ropey early special effects and no tired old gags that have done the rounds too many times to be effective. So the film plays as well as it ever did, perhaps even better, as we’ve grown so disillusioned by how the ‘magic’ of films is created that to see something done largely for real is refreshing and thrilling.
Speaking of doing things for real, the iconic finale needs to be seen to be believed. These dizzying scenes were shot on a facade but this was still set right at the edge of the roof of a high building. Photos of similar scenes on other Lloyd films show only a couple of mattresses below without barriers around the edges. So the stunts were still extremely dangerous, despite having some minor precautionary measures put in place.
And these “thrill sequences” are still incredibly exciting. You can’t help but gasp at Lloyd’s close calls up the wall and some earlier car stunts are eye-popping too. Lloyd may not have had the knockabout vaudeville experience of Chaplin and Keaton, but he could match them for physical comedy and death-defying stunt work.
The film is brilliantly constructed too. Each sequence helps build to something bigger, largely the final act up the building. Jokes aren’t thrown in for the sake of it, they always help tell the story or develop the characters. As such, it’s a taut, lean film that never flags for so much as a second.
The jokes are still very effective too. Lloyd’s schtick was playing characters that used their wits to get out of trouble and here that idea is mined in abundance. From hiding on the wall inside his jacket to evade the landlady to concocting an ingenious way to stamp ‘kick me’ on the back of the policeman so a drunk would oblige, Lloyd is always cleverly and hilariously able to switch things around in his favour. Early in his career, Lloyd would imitate Chaplin with his ‘Lonesome Luke’ character but by this stage, with his more popular ‘Glasses’ creation, he’d found his own distinctive place in the comedy icon pantheon.
I shan’t ramble on any further though. Simply put, Safety Last! is pure joy from start to finish, with a steady flow of laugh-out-loud skits and a hair-raising finale that remains astonishing to watch almost 100 years later. This viewing was only the second time I’d seen the film but I’m growing inclined to call it my favourite of all the silent comedies, from Lloyd or otherwise.
Safety Last! is out on 14th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is fantastic for a film of its age. There is some very minor damage in the form of the odd line on the print, but these are faint and never distracting. The two scores sound great too. I couldn’t resist the lure of Carl Davis’ score when I watched the film for review but I gave the alternative Gaylord Carter track a quick listen too. It has a more authentic solo organ sound, which might appeal to many, though I prefer the orchestral sound of Davis.
There are plenty of special features included too:
– New, restored 2K digital film transfer
– Musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1989, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray edition
– Alternate score by organist Gaylord Carter from the late 1960s, presented in uncompressed monaural on the Blu-ray edition
– Audio commentary featuring 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, a 108-minute documentary from 1989
– 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, a new documentary featuring Bengtson and visual-effects expert Craig Barron
– New interview with Davis
– PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Ed Park
– New cover by F. Ron Miller
The commentary by Leonard Maltin and Richard Correl has cropped up on previous DVD releases but it’s a decent track, with plenty of background information about the film’s production and history. The pair have a good rapport too and there’s a warmth in hearing them talk about a film they clearly both adore.
The feature-length documentary ‘Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius’ is my favourite feature on the disc though. It provides an enjoyable and illuminating look back at Lloyd’s life and work. I’ve seen documentaries on him before so it wasn’t all new, but it’s well-produced and contains a plethora of clips from Lloyd’s films, so it’s a pleasure to watch and made me eager to work through more of his back catalogue. Reportedly, the documentary helped renew interest in Lloyd in the U.S. too, so it’s quite an important film, in its own way.
Suzanne Lloyd’s introduction is an affectionate little piece too and Davis’ interview provides a fairly detailed deconstruction of his approach to the score, as well as his thoughts on some of the other Lloyd scores he’s composed.
The ‘Locations and Effects’ piece is excellent. It shows you how Lloyd and his team pulled off the hair-raising finale, with plenty of behind the scenes stills (largely from other similar films – Lloyd kept Safety Last! closed off to photographers) and a neat little animation that brilliantly visualises how the key climbing scene was shot.
Finally, you’ve got the shorts, which are a more than welcome addition. Take a Chance is largely made up of quite predictable and milked gags but Lloyd does a good job with the weak material. Young Mr Jazz feels less episodic than the previous short, with a stronger (albeit slight) story, and has some wonderful dancing from Lloyd and Bebe Daniels as well as a manic brawl at the end with a couple of impressive jumps from its star. His Royal Slyness is the best of the bunch though. More elaborately staged and longer, with a story that riffs on ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, it’s an enjoyable romp that again culminates in a big scrap but has plenty of great gags along the way.
All of these shorts come with their own commentary too, which is a welcome extravagance. Correll and John Bengtson have done their research and they have plenty to say about the films’ histories.
I didn’t receive the booklet to comment on that, but this release is an easy recommendation. A nigh-on perfect film, beautifully restored and lavished with extras, it’s a disc I’m sure to revisit on regular occasions.