Safety Last

It’s one of the most enduring images from silent comedy — Harold Lloyd grasps the hand of a massive clock as he hangs perilously over a busy street. The image became an emblem for the daredevil stunts that were popular during the era, in part because Lloyd appears so ordinary and out-of-place. The source for the image is Lloyd’s feature-film Safety Last (1923), which combines genuine thrills with intricately constructed humor.

In his tribute to the great silent comedian, titled “Harold Lloyd: A Rediscovery,” Andrew Sarris wrote that Safety Last:

. . . established for all time the spatial metaphor for an American rise to the top in the midst of a fear of falling. As Lloyd became known as the comedian who would do anything for a laugh, the character he played became known as the jazz-age climber who would do anything to succeed . . .

There is a wildly lyrical moment when Lloyd is swinging crazily from a rope, a moment that Keaton might have extended in time for its feelings of freedom and exhilaration. Lloyd treats this moment as an interruption in the ultimate climb, and quickly returns to the business at hand. On the other hand, Lloyd gives us glimpses of an impervious city, and this makes the spectacle more frighteningly real and majestically social. The spectacular climax of Safety Last undoubtedly influenced Chaplin’s cabin-teetering-on-the-cliff sequence in The Gold Rush (1925).

While Safety Last is one of Lloyd’s best features, it doesn’t blend the comedy and characters as successfully as his later silents, especially The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927). The film is split into two parts: everything that leads up to the climb, and the climb itself.

The pre-climb portion provides some memorable gags and extended set pieces. One of the cleverest gags comes at the very beginning when we’re surprised to see Lloyd about to be executed by hanging (a hint at his coming ordeal with the climb). The visual elements are then deconstructed, almost Keaton-like, to show that each cliché — prison bars, rope, priest, and inconsolable mother — was misinterpreted.

Later, we see Lloyd as a sales clerk where he battles (sometimes quite literally) swarms of bargain-obsessed women. It’s one of the most laugh-worthy sequences from the 1920s. This too presages the upcoming climb, suggesting the obstacles he’ll encounter and the ingenuity he’ll need to complete his goal.

Safety Last
(1923; directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; cable, dvd, and blu-ray)
Criterion Collection
List Price: $39.95 (Blu-ray), $29.95 (DVD)

Wednesday, April 20 at 7:15 a.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies