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Safety Last!
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by Jay Seaver

"That shot of the man on the clock tower - comes from here."
5 stars

"Safety Last!" is the film from which the retrospective of Harold Lloyd's films that recently played at the Brattle Theater takes its name, and is also the source of the general public's most enduring image of Lloyd: A man scaling the wall of a building, dangling from the face of a clock tower as his weight begins to pry it loose. It's a fine example of what Lloyd called a "thrill picture", a description that the audience would have a hard time disagreeing with.

It starts out innocently enough. A boy (Lloyd) from rural California sets out for the city to make his fortune so that he can marry his girlfriend (Mildred Davis). It takes a lot more work than he expects, and he winds up barely holding a job at the materials counter in a department store, quite behind his expected timetable for becoming president of the company. Despite the fact that he and his construction-worker pal (Bill Strother) are dodging the landlady, his letters home describe a grand success, so the girl decides to stop waiting for him to send for her and hops on a train. He hatches a plan to receive a bonus for staging a publicity stunt where his fearless friend climbs the wall of the building, but an angry policeman (Noah Young) is waiting for the pal at the building. Don't worry, he says, you just climb up one floor, we'll switch out at the second-floor window after I ditch this cop, and I'll climb the rest of the way.

Yeah. That'll work.

The big set piece that occupies more or less the film's entire third act is so amazing and justly famous that it threatens to blot the rest of the movie out of one's mind. That would be unfortunate, because although Lloyd's character is not quite so likable as usual, he does get himself involved in a couple of funny situations. He's quite funny when being swarmed by demanding customers during a fabric sale while dealing with the store's stuffy floor manager, for instance. It's well-done slapstick, but not quite as impressive as some of the other bits he's done. Funnier at its peaks but less successful overall is when Miss Davis's character shows up and Harold tries to live up to the impression created by his letters without getting himself fired. It's a very dialog-driven scene, which is always an issue in silent movies. The necessary separation of the words from the characters' delivery makes it harder to establish a precise tone, which is kind of crucial when the point of the exercise is the star trying to get away with lying to his fiancée.

Because of this, I found Lloyd coming off as less likable than was perhaps intended, with it only later occurring to me that perhaps that was the idea: The ordeal Harold is put through toward the end is a direct result of him trying to lie his way out of situations. Not that the lead in a comedy necessarily has to be particularly likable or trustworthy, but if you're going to go that direction, it's a more fun if the character is a little more gleefully nasty than Lloyd's is, so as to give the audience more of a vicarious thrill or delight in him receiving his comeuppance. Harold isn't mean enough to be punished or virtuous enough to be cheered, or multifaceted enough to be complex. He's just sort of there to act out the plot.

The same could be said for Mildred Davis, which is kind of a shame. She and Lloyd wed soon after, and the marriage would shortly be followed by her retirement from the screen, despite her only being in her mid-twenties. It's unfortunate, because they were a highly successful pairing both on and off the screen - 15 features and shorts together, followed by 46 years of marriage - and they only briefly play off each other in this one.

What is noteworthy is the film's famous last act, where Harold scales an eighteen-story building while his friend - the real human fly - occasionally sticks his head out the window to say that Harold just has to climb one more floor, while he loses the cop. He'll deal with birds, not being able to find solid purchase for both hands and feet, things coming out of windows, and, of course, the clock face that isn't nearly as solid as one might hope. His ability to maintain his grip is even more impressive when you consider the fact that Lloyd lost the thumb and forefinger of his right hand in a 1920 accident. Of course, he's not in as much danger as he appears to be - the crew built sets on top of a Los Angeles skyscraper and then positioned the camera so that the roof below could not be seen (you can sort of tell, because even though Lloyd is making upward progress, the background doesn't appear to move). The illusion requires some very slick cinematography and direction from Harold Lloyd Company regulars Walter Lundin, Fred Newmeyer, and Sam Taylor, and they never falter.

"Safety Last!" is Lloyd's most famous film, and a part of movie history the most lovers of the medium should recognize right away. It's immortal for good reason, though, and if you haven't seen it... Well, you really should, as soon as humanly possible.

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originally posted: 07/06/05 11:32:56
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User Comments

4/22/07 Casey Christianson excellent high wire act for the times 4 stars
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