Dir: Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Scr: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, H.M. Walker, Jean C. Havez, Harold Lloyd
Phot: Walter Lundin
Ed: Thomas J. Crizer
Premiere: April 1, 1923
You can find Richard W. Bann’s excellent explanatory essay here.
Safety Last! Is Harold Lloyd’s most emblematic film, his best remembered work. The film’s resonant image of a dangling man clinging frantically to the hands of an outsized clock is still burned into the memories of filmgoers.
Lloyd is always listed third in the pantheon of great silent-film comics, after Chaplin and Keaton. But Lloyd was more prolific than either of the other two, and arguably more popular at the time. He started out an aspiring comic actor in roles that were notably imitative of other more successful comic personalities. For some time, Lloyd sought out a unique and popular character he could play.
Finally his comic persona cemented itself around 1918, when the simple expedient of wearing glasses gave him the look of a soft-hearted underdog. Under this bespectacled veneer he crafted a peppy, optimistic character who, film after film, overcame all manner of absurd obstacles in order to achieve success.
Safety Last! uses that template, and adds the thrill of watching our hero climb the side of a tall building. This kind of “thrill comedy,” a potent mixture of stunts and laughs, proved to be the winning formula for Lloyd.
In Safety Last! Harold is a small-town guy going to the big city, promising to send for his girl once he’s made it big there. He tells her he’s become the general manager of a big department store, when in fact he is only a lowly clerk there. When she surprises him with a visit, he concocts a scheme to get rich quick with his friend, a “human fly,” asking him to climb the store’s building. Unfortunately, the friend is chased by the police, leaving Harold to climb the building himself.
The final sequence is gripping. Adroitly edited, it plays the efforts of Lloyd and his stunt double to maximum effect. The filmmakers also worked with tricks of perspective, building a skyscraper set that only looked like it towered over the street below. Overcoming the absurd obstacles in his way (pigeons, a mouse, netting), Harold reaches the top, his love, and success. Not a bad formula for the filmgoing public to fall for.
The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Salome (1923).