Anyone who knows me or has regularly perused my blog will be well aware that I’m a huge fan of the silent comedy from the 1910s to 1930s. Of course this isn’t entirely true though. My love and knowledge only extends as far as the two behemoths of the era, to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Aside from the occasional foray into the likes of Laurel and Hardy and non-Chaplin Keystone, my understanding is limited. For a long time I’ve wanted to get a hold of some of the films of Harold Lloyd, the man who probably came closest to Chaplin and Keaton both then and now. Unfortunately, unlike my two comedy heroes, his oeuvre is harder to come by and much more expensive. I’ve started then with what is in my opinion his best known work; Safety Last! A film famous for its iconic still of Lloyd hanging from a clock face several stories up a skyscraper, I thought I’d start with the obvious and work my way back.
The movie opens very strongly with a set up that seems to suggest that the lead character, named Harold Lloyd, is behind bars and being visited by his sweetheart and a priest. In the background, a hangman’s noose looms. As the camera zooms out though, we learn that he’s merely behind a fence and is in fact awaiting the arrival of a train that will take him to the big city in search of his fortune. Lloyd promises to make good within the year in order that he and his girl (Mildred Davis) can marry. The establishing scene expertly sets up the next sixty-five minutes by introducing us to the characters and their motivations as well as giving us a great sight gag. From then on, the film goes from strength to strength.
Once in the city, Harold struggles to make his fortune and is instead living hand to mouth while simultaneously trying to present himself as a successful man to Mildred. He sends her expensive gifts in the mail while dodging his landlady and forgoing food. Instead of the wealthy man he reports to be, Harold is a salesman in a department store, a job which offers little in the way of satisfaction or recompense. The film goes through a slight mid point lag before Mildred travels to the city to see her future husband’s success for herself. Now faced with impressing his fiancé in person, Harold whisks her around the large store while pretending to be its general manager, dodging his superiors and Mildred’s suspicions. The film really picks up pace in these scenes with some clever ideas and great jokes.
The final act is responsible for the movie’s continued fame. Spotting a way to make some quick cash, Harold offers to attract customers to the store with a terrifying daredevil stunt. His employer is open to the idea and offers $1,000 if it succeeds. The enterprising central character asks a friend to scale the twelve stories of the department store for $500, meaning he’ll leave with $500 for himself. When things don’t work out though, it’s left to Harold to climb the building. I enjoyed this sequence immensely as the writers and actor found ways to create new problems on each floor that Lloyd encountered. By about the forth floor I was worried that the idea was becoming repetitive but thankfully the scene is clever enough and funny enough to sustain what must have been around twenty minutes. The laughs start at ground level with an interfering police man and continue to rise as the character makes his way up towards the sky. The sequence is also cleverly shot and presented to the audience. I don’t suffer from a fear of heights but my heart was in my mouth on several occasions. It’s a fantastic scene.
As I’ve mentioned, I knew little of Harold Lloyd’s work before watching this movie but here he strikes me as a very competent comic actor. There’s one scene in which he must knock on his bosses office door which I thought showed incredible craft. Lloyd attempts to knock several times but each time fails to do so for fear. He’s fantastic in that scene and very good throughout. Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s wife, in one of her final screen appearances, is less impressive but plays the dumb girl from the country successfully. Few other actors are given a chance to shine but I liked Earl Mohan’s drunk. The film was well directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and co-writer Sam Taylor. In a dialogue free medium in which visuals are of the utmost importance, the directors place their camera in prime position to extract the biggest laughs throughout the movie.
Overall I was very impressed with Safety Last! Although I don’t believe it matches the best that Keaton or Chaplin produced, it’s nonetheless a more than solid comedy with several standout moments. Now that I’ve broken my Harold Lloyd cherry, I’ll definitely be heading back for some more of what he has to offer.
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