Safety Last! might contain one of the most iconic movie moments from a movie almost no one has seen: a lanky pale man with glasses, hangs from the hands of a clock, suspended atop a skyscraper. His look is one of terror and worry—there’s no way he can survive that fall—but there’s something about his appearance that makes it impossible for us not to find the situation very, very funny. The man in question is Harold Lloyd, who should be regarded as one of the major film stars of the silent era, but ended up being a hidden gem for decades. This specific moment from his Safety Last!, has been referenced in movies and television shows for decades.
Lloyd, along with Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was one of the biggest comedic stars during the first quarter of the 20th century. He starred in more than 200 films, was highly regarded by audiences, and even helped create the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Where Chaplin was melancholy incarnate and Keaton was a lovable trouble-magnet, Lloyd was more of an optimistic everyman. His movies have him take on everyday duties in order to satisfy common necessities. In Safety Last! for example, we see him move to the big city, in order to make enough money to marry his girlfriend (Mildred Davis).
Confident that he will be incredibly successful, he finds a job as a salesclerk for a department store called De Vore, but starts getting in trouble with the bossy floor manager (Westcott Clarke) and sees his hopes deflate when he realizes he might not be able to send for his girl as soon as he thought. We see his character, also named Harold, try hard to be great at what he does; he faces picky customers, defends himself from the floor manager’s tantrums and even arrives to the store way before opening time… but his wallet is never full and he keeps spending his money buying little presents to keep his girlfriend happy and fool her into thinking he’s achieving everything he wanted.
The film is filled with priceless gags and humorous scenes (Harold accidentally being taken away in a delivery truck, Harold getting involved in a prank with a cop…) and as such it’s a wonderful crowd pleaser, but its true beauty surfaces in its most poetic moments, most of which are almost too subtle for us to notice them. The very opening scene, for example, suggests that Harold is being sent off to be executed in prison. The way the camera reveals the settings and the teary eyed face of his girlfriend, make us believe this man is to be punished severely. We sigh in relief when we realize that it’s just a train station, although at some point the film does suggest that the big city with its dream-shattering powers might be even worse than being executed.
This theme of playful oppression is perpetuated when Harold runs into a former buddy of his, who not only lives in the city but has become a policeman. Harold doesn’t seem to understand that his friend is now also an authority figure and chaos ensues when he convinces one of his work friends to pull a prank on the cop. It becomes almost heartbreaking sometimes to see how Harold refuses to see reality for what it is. Safety Last! was shot half a decade before the Great Depression but it’s an unmistakably ‘20s movie; we detect in the characters a fervent desire to improve themselves and a wary hope that filled society after the end of World War I.
The film’s centerpiece is, of course, the skyscraper scene which is impressive because of its realism. Considering Lloyd had lost two fingers in an accident years before, his acrobatic feats are even more incredible, but there’s something else here beyond the spectacle: the fact that there were no fancy special effects back then injects the film with an inspirational “you can do anything you want” spirit. The morals and ethics at its center might not be precisely orthodox, but the film sums up the American dream in a straightforward way that avoids all cynicism.
The Criterion Collection has done a great job in restoring the film and bringing it to wider audiences, which will undoubtedly be thrilled to see it for the first time. The feature is presented with several score accompaniments and includes three previously unreleased Lloyd shorts including the hilarious Take a Chance all included in the first disc of the DVD set. The second disc includes two great documentaries, one which chronicles Lloyd himself, the other which explains how he achieved all his lunatic stunts.