Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, 1923)
Harold Lloyd’s most popular and well known movie has recently received one of the most prestigious treatments : a Criterion collection release. This classic Silent comedy is famously recognized for its star climbing on the façade of a 12 story building and hanging in the air from a huge clock.
Harold (Lloyd) is a young man who wants to marry his girlfriend Mildred (Mildred Davis) but first he wants to succeed and make money in the big city. He lives with Bill in a tiny apartment where they struggle to make rent and actually live modestly. Until one day Harold hears his boss wanting a new idea for a thousand dollars. He promises to bring thousands of customers the next day and asks Bill to climb the building as a spectacle that will bring people to the department store where Harold works. However, having performed this trick before to escape a policeman, Bill can’t do it and tries to escape the hangered policeman so Harold has to do it. It brings us to the legendary climax that 90 years later is still daring and spectacular.
Almost forgotten in the 1960’s, the Silent films of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd were re-released and gained a new generation of film viewers. Even now, Lloyd’s films are less known than his two other peers and all that even if Lloyd was even more succesful than Chaplin in the 1920’s. Being myself a strong admirer of The Tramp’s creator, I honestly thing that his use of filmmaking, storytelling, and comedy makes more of an ensemble that his other fellow Silent comedy stars. However, stuntmen like Keaton and Lloyd made more spectacular films and have more a sense of humor than Chaplin. Their physical comedy and mastery of the schock value of impressive performances gave them a range that Chaplin didn’t had.
On the level of the story with Safety Last! nothing is really new, a guy loves a girl and he wants to marry. Most of Keaton’s films have the same pattern and even Chaplin. But Lloyd spices it with his style that is not Chaplin’s of Keaton’s.He is a common man wanting to do right and he is just very optimistic about it. The plot has many surprises and it is very well written for a comedy of the 1920’s that we could have already have seen hundreds of times. But no, every gag seems fresh and new. There’s no cream pie thrown in the face of the policeman or any kind of predictable sequence.
Overall, Safety Last! Is the culmination of Harold Lloyd’s career and why he is now recognized as one of the greatest comic actors of all time. A great classic.