Published on March 28th, 2014 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Criterion Cut – Safety Last!
In this instalment of The Criterion Cut, Noah Dimitrie takes a look at the Criterion version of Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd’s classic 1923 silent comedy.
Safety Last! begins with Harold Lloyd behind bars and ends with him on top of the world. Both are illusions, either set-ups or pay-offs for gags that never fail to entertain. Harold Lloyd is a master of illusions, perhaps the master. Almost every laugh this film gets is because of Lloyd’s unique ability to fool the characters around him into thinking everything is fine, and to fool the audience into thinking nothing is.
And we buy it every time. There is something completely hypnotizing about Lloyd’s demeanour, his firm dedication to the art of getting by. If Buster Keaton’s talent was falling down, Lloyd’s is that of falling only to get back up again. We see it time and time again in his work, but Safety Last! is where it rings truest. Somehow, after 91 years, this seminal slapstick romp is still timeless, with every gag feeling tremendously fresh and sincere.
It follows a man, simply labeled The Boy, which, depending who you ask, is a more or less suitable title. He leaves his beloved behind to make it big in the city (another generalization that makes the film feel more universal). Of course, he is severely under-qualified, and has a noticeable lack of street smarts, which lands him a lowly salesman position at a stuffy department store. Hilarity, as expected, ensues, with a series of loosely tied vignettes that never wear out their welcome. It’s interesting to note that the first half of the film was written after the famous climactic climbing sequence, just to make up an excuse for The Boy to get in such a sticky situation.
For all the aimless, yet hilarious gags, there is also a creative little tale inter-twined throughout that foreshadows a great deal of conflict in the film’s second, more focused half. But really, the film lives off those ‘sketches,’ sculpting a relatable, often satirical look at capitalism and the working class. Everyone knows that the 20s were a time of economic skyrocketing, with thriving industry and a bounty of jobs. But those jobs still had their pitfalls, and watching Safety Last! was and is, if anything, a cathartic experience for those hapless employees. Seeing Harold being hounded by hoards of greedy upper-class women, all pining for samples of various materials, and witnessing his shrewd juggling act played utterly convincingly and timed to perfection is even more hilarious if something similar, if not quite as hyperbolic, has happened to you.
And then there’s the scene we all know, even you haven’t seen the film. The Boy stages a publicity stunt for a massive paycheck. The goal: climb to the top of the skys-craping department store building. The catch: the friend who he hired to pull the stunt is on the lamb from an aggravated cop (as set-up in the first half). It’s up to a weak, unconfident Lloyd to do it instead. The sequence, which lasts a good fifteen to twenty minutes, is one of the most creative ever staged. A flurry of unforeseeable obstacles come his way, including a flock of pigeons, painters, and an angry dog, all fated to put Lloyd through the ringer. And then of course, everyone’s favourite clock gag, where he hangs for dear life by the long hand after a window opening right on him. Everything he does in this montage of events is done with such precision. It feels like a rigidly choreographed dance with Harold somehow managing to time every step to perfection while staying in character and making it all look easy. The suspense is absolutely electrifying as he literally comes a toes-length from falling to his death. This is truly one of the most entertaining, inventive climaxes in film history.
The Criterion DVD of Safety Last! is loaded with cool features, including an informative commentary track by critic extraordinaire, Leonard Maltin, as well as a renowned Harold Lloyd expert. It’s surprisingly light-hearted and interesting, something Criterion commentaries are not exactly known for. There are also a few great shorts of Lloyd’s that were specifically remastered for the DVD. Disc two also sports a feature length documentary about Harold Lloyd entitled The Third Genius, a reference to the impressive class of silent comedians he belonged to, the other members being Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
In Safety Last!, the name of The Boy is revealed only once. His name: Harold Lloyd. There is such a thin line in any of Lloyd’s films (or any of Keaton’s of Chaplin’s films for that matter) between the comedian and the character. When you see him, you aren’t seeing a character, but rather a persona. Lloyd knew that and embraced it. He made a career out of it. Sometimes that’s all you need to do to reach greatness — just be the best possible version of yourself.