Safety Last! (1923)
Director: Fred C. Neymeyer, Sam Taylor
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother
Synopsis: When a store clerk organizes a publicity stunt, in which a friend climbs the outside of a tall building, circumstances force him to make the perilous climb himself.
Fully deserving of his place with Keaton and Chaplin amongst the pantheon of great silent Hollywood comics, bespectacled Harold Lloyd somehow seems to lack the truly legendary status enjoyed by his two comic rivals. This is despite the fact that the image of Lloyd dangling perilously from the broken clock face hanging from a skyscraper is arguably the defining image of silent Hollywood comedy. Perhaps that slightly less elevated reputation of Lloyd’s is due to his rather bland, clean-cut looks; those black, round specs he wore are more recognisable than the face behind them, and a feature of his anonymity is the fact that few commentators note how good looking he was. Lloyd had the clean-cut looks of an All-American hero, but he hid them behind those specs in order to claim his place amongst the top-ranking comics.
Safety Last! is arguably the greatest of Lloyd’s features. Compact and streamlined, it wastes not a second of screen time, allowing no opportunity for a gag to pass it by. Only a sequence in which Lloyd has to tie himself in knots attempting to fool his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) into believing he’s the General Manager of the store in which he toils as a lowly sales assistant suffers from a poor pacing. It’s a mark of the quality of the entire film that, even though we know that the superlative finale in which Lloyd’s character scales the side of a skyscraper is to come, we never feel impatient for that act to begin.
Lloyd plays a country boy who leaves his small town to make good in the city. His departure is foreshadowed by a classic piece of misdirection in which the shot is staged to make us believe that, rather than heading for the city, Harold has a date with the gallows. A few weeks later his wages as a sales assistant in a large store in which he is at the mercy of an endless stream of ill-tempered and demanding female shoppers aren’t enough to pay his rent or fill his belly, but in letters to his girlfriend he pretends he’s a high-flying executive. Of course, Harold’s grandiose claims backfire when his girl decides to pay an impromptu visit, and he’s forced to pose as the store’s General Manager while avoiding the attention of the real manager, much to the puzzlement of his colleagues. It’s this sequence, which relies as heavily on the suspense of whether Harold’s charade will be discovered as it does on the rather forced humour of the situation which is the film’s only real low point, but thankfully it’s immediately followed by Harold’s plan to have his builder friend Limpy (real-life ‘spiderman’ Bill Strother) scale the side of the store’s building as a publicity stunt for the store which he hopes will net him $1000. But when a cop (Noah Young) with whom Limpy had a previous run-in parks himself at the spot from which the stunt is due to begin, Harold is forced to step into his friend’s shoes.
Lloyd employs every imaginable gag to chart his tortuous progress up the side of that building. He battles with pigeons hungry for the nuts spilled over him, he becomes entangled in a carelessly discarded net, contends with a mouse up his trouser leg that has him dancing a crazy jitterbug on a high ledge, and reaches for the safety of a rope that he doesn’t realise is attached to nothing. It’s the stuff of nightmares, but it’s also breathtakingly funny and suspenseful. The fact that we now know Lloyd was really scaling a mock-up of the building situated in the relatively safety of a skyscraper roof matters no more than the knowledge that the Millennium Falcon is just a model or King Kong is really only six inches tall. The movies are all about illusion, and screen illusions are rarely as convincing as they are in Safety Last!.
I was fortunate to catch a theatrical screening of this movie some years ago, and was astounded by the way it held the audience spellbound throughout. At the end of the screening, the theatre erupted into spontaneous cheers and applause. It’s a reaction I’d never witnessed before, and its one the likes of so-called modern ‘classics’ like American Pie and The Hangover have no chance of equalling when viewed ninety years from now.
(Reviewed 5th October 2014)