A tale of giddy optimism; a workplace comedy for the ages; a showcase for audacious, masterfully executed, hilarious stunts; a frantic mediation on time, ambition, and money. Above all: a ridiculously entertaining movie. Safety Last! (1923) is silent comedy genius Harold Lloyd’s tour de force. It's now available in a generously supplemented DVD and Blu-ray package from Criterion.
In his trademark boater, dark suit and glasses, Lloyd plays “The Boy” (he was almost 30), who leaves his little town of Great Bend for the big city. The stakes are established in seconds: his beloved Mildred (Mildred Davis) is going to come to the city and marry him—but only after he’s become a success, whatever that means. We start at the train station and off he goes, nearly taking a stranger’s baby with him. The views of urban Los Angeles in the 20s are gorgeous, possessing tremendous documentary value. The idea of the city is conveyed most obviously by tall buildings, so maybe it’s inevitable that Lloyd’s Boy will wind up climbing up the face of one of them. The Boy gets the idea from his pal and roomie, Limpy Bill (Bill Strother), whose limp was all too real—he broke his leg just before shooting. Strother was a labourer and a genuine human fly who could scale buildings like nobody’s business. Then Lloyd worked it into his business, crafting one of cinema’s most iconic images, a predecessor to Man on Wire (2008), the film’s gangly hero climbing his way to the top, often nearly falling along the way, at one point clutching hands of a clock, destroying its face, literally killing time so as to save his life.
It’s often noted that Lloyd remains underappreciated in comparison with Chaplin and Keaton, and it’s true. Yet his presence looms over so much comedy to this day. Think of that incredible, rather beautiful opening image of Lloyd in close-up, worried, containing his panic, anxiously clutching an iron gate. Woody Allen is waiting somewhere in that image. Maybe Don McKellar too. So many of the film’s best moments are made of hi-jinx: hiding from the landlady by curling up under a coat hanging on the wall; pretending to be an accident victim so as to hitch a ride to work in an ambulance. But that face of Lloyd’s is as subtle as the physical comedy is broad. Underappreciated, yes, but it will remain with us for another 90 years, at least.