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Always listed as the number three silent comedian, Harold Lloyd was financially the most successful actor of the entire silent period. As is pointed out in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's extensive documentary, Chaplin and Keaton were raised in show business trained by Mack Sennett. They specialized in unusual characters, Charlie with his anarchic but sentimental Little Tramp and Buster's forever lonesome, clueless outsider. Harold Lloyd was a more accessible identification figure. His cheerful, motivated young man trying to get ahead personified youthful ambition in the 1920s. James Agee called him a fellow, "who wore glasses, smiled a great deal and looked like the sort of eager young man who might have quit divinity student to hustle brushes." In his silent classic The Freshman, Harold's college fool-turned hero wins both the big game and the girl. Chaplin's Tramp would more likely be found on skid row. If he finds happiness in the end, it's sure to be a more humble, personal kind. Keaton's confused hero went to College and also won the big game and the girl, but couldn't resist critiquing Lloyd's success story. His college story has a jarringly macabre, wickedly funny stinger in its tail.
Although neither as inspired as Chaplin's best work nor as winningly surreal as the best of Keaton's, Harold Lloyd's films were equally funny. Lloyd built gags, milked them, and topped them just as brilliantly as did his competitors. Like Keaton, Lloyd was fond of slapstick with an element of danger and frequently concocted stunts with an element of risk. If he had himself doubled for the really dangerous feats, nobody should complain. It wasn't widely publicized that an accident left Lloyd with only part of one hand. With his thumb and index finger missing he wore a trick glove with prosthetic digits. For ten years Lloyd did climbing gags with this handicap -- sometimes fairly high off the ground.
Safety Last! is Lloyd's best-known comedy by virtue of a single visual that is now indelibly burned into the cultural memory: high above the city streets, the hapless Harold dangles desperately on the minute hand of a crumbling clock face. The image comes near the end of perhaps the most celebrated sustained stunt sequence in silent cinema.
The Boy (Harold Lloyd) joins his best Pal (Bill Strother) in the big city. He hopes to make good as quickly as possible so he can marry The Girl back home (Mildred Davis). He ends up sharing a room with The Pal and slaving as a lowly clerk in a large department store. The Boy endures store's Simon Legree-like Floorwalker (Westcott Clarke) but the store's women customers are dangerous savages, individually running him ragged or overwhelming him like a needy mob. The Boy's difficulties are compounded when he sends the Girl a piece of jewelry, with a truth-challenged note claiming that he's risen to a position of importance. When The Girl shows up to see for herself, The Boy pulls off an amazing charade right during store hours, pretending to be the general manager. Opportunity finally comes when the store's owner offers advancement to any employee who can think of a way to give the store a spike of publicity. Remembering that The Pal is a fearless 'human fly' and loves to scale tall buildings, The Boy arranges for just such a daredevil stunt to attract customers. But at the last minute a cop arrives, looking to arrest The Pal for an earlier misunderstanding. With his daredevil friend forced to withdraw, the nervous Boy has no choice but to scale the department store himself.
The gags in Safety Last! are so gracefully orchestrated that we never realize that there are fewer than ten scenes in the 73-minute movie. Most contain one long and complex gag set piece. From a simple foundation, such as Harold desperate to get to work on time, stems a seemingly endless series of logical gags. Unable to board a crowded trolley, Harold hops an almost empty one, only for it to go in the wrong direction. He flags down a possible ride, only to accidentally cause its driver (Fred C. Newmeyer, one of the directors) to receive a ticket. Every conveyance that he boards immediately goes in the wrong direction. He finally sneaks past the hawkeyed Floorwalker by disguising himself as a mannequin being delivered, punching his time clock on the way. Pretending that the big boss's office is his own to impress The Girl, Harold accidentally sits on a row of buttons that summons the entire office staff. He has nowhere to hide yet improvises an effortless ruse to sidestep disaster.
Any office boy or trainee could identify with The Boy's impatience with his career. Harold's rash optimism causes him to wildly exaggerate his progress to his Girl. But he forgets that the object of his affections has a mother, who will take his claims of success as a cue to send The Girl to the city before some other woman can catch his eye. Harold's need to inflate his image in the eyes of others is also what gets his Pal in trouble with the law. When Harold finds himself forced to risk his own neck climbing the building, there's nobody else to blame. He's a self-made man.
Charlie Chaplin would turn tail and run, or blunder into the problem wearing a blindfold and find out only later how much danger he was in. Keaton would envision the crisis as a series of fantastic mechanical challenges, relying on the 'harmonious chaos' of physical reality to save his skin. Harold's extended building climb is a crazy gauntlet of dangers and accidents within accidents. A mouse skitters into his clothing, the clock falls apart just as he's holding on for dear life, and a spinning weathervane konks him on the head. Harold may be crazy but he never gives up. He's got the right stuff to (literally) reach the top.
Safety Last! still builds the same audience reaction that viewers ninety years ago surely felt -- a growing wave of hilarious jeopardy that pays off in big laughs, which are then topped by bigger laughs. Silent movie organists Chauncey Haines and Gaylord Carter were still active in the 1970s and often played the organ for UCLA student screenings. An amplified organ was probably the only instrument that could cut through the gales of laughter during screenings of Lloyd's Safety Last! and Grandma's Boy.
"The Pal" Bill Strother was a real free-climber daredevil that Harold Lloyd witnessed scaling a tall building in downtown Los Angeles. He was hired on the spot. A newsboy is played by Mickey Daniels, one of the very first moppets in the "Our Gang" series started by Hal Roach in 1922. Tiny actor Sam Lufkin can be seen in a variety of comic roles in silent comedies; here he plays an inoffensive yet strongly stereotyped Jewish pawnshop owner. Lufkin started with Lloyd and would later work frequently with Laurel and Hardy. Earl Mohan provides laughs as a drunk on the street, adding some brilliant bit of business to almost every take. Harold Lloyd reportedly had a temper but was known for loyalty to his collaborators -- Mohan had worked with him on scores of "Lonesome Luke" comedies seven years before. Silent actress Mildred Davis started with Lloyd in shorts as well, and also played his love interest in the comedy features Grandma's Boy and Dr. Jack.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Safety Last! shows only a tiny bit of age here and there, thanks to Harold Lloyd's careful custodianship of his library of films. Chaplin likewise invested in the maintenance of his own work, whereas Buster Keaton's entire filmography might have disappeared were it not for the intervention of the opportunistic Raymond Rohauer. Lloyd passed away in 1971. His estate has prepared his library for reissue on digital media, as explained in a videotaped introduction by the comedian's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd. Helping considerably with the presentation is the fact that Safety Last! has been transferred at 22 frames per second, which adds several minutes to the running time but results in much smoother action.
Two soundtrack choices are provided. An orchestral accompaniment by Carl Davis was recorded in 1989. A second organ track recorded in the late 1960s was improvised the old-fashioned way by the noted organist Gaylord Carter.
Disc producer Karen Stetler has located and produced an excellent group of extras. David Gill and Kevin Brownlow's comprehensive feature length docu Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius is present in its entirety. In the new video piece Locations and Effects, locations expert John Bengtson and effects man Craig Barron take us to the actual downtown Los Angeles rooftops. Specially constructed partial sets and clever camera angles created the effect of Harold suspended high above the city.
Leonard Maltin and Lloyd archivist Richard Correll provide the audio commentary. Capping Criterion's presentation are three newly restored Lloyd short subjects, Take a Chance, Young Mr. Jazz and His Royal Slyness.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Safety Last! Blu-ray rates:
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