#662 Safety Last!
1923 // USA // Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
Criterion Collection (LINK)
There are three giants of silent film comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton invariably competing for the first spot, while the spectacled, collage-boy-looking Harold Lloyd seems to be consistently deemed as the least among them. It’s unfair for me to say Harold Lloyd is my least favorite out of all three since I have only watched three of his feature-length films, all are included in the Criterion Collection. Although I can’t share much enthusiasm on The Freshman (1925) and Speedy (1928), I find Safety Last!, arguably his most renowned work, exceptionally funny and engaging, it is Lloyd’s masterpiece.
Needless to say, the image of Lloyd hanging on the minute hand of a large clock on top of a high-rise building has become immortal ever since the release of the film in 1923, it’s influence on subsequent film-making is hard to be missed either. For instance, I’m surely not the only one to find reminiscence in the climax of Back to the Future (1985), right?
The last act of Safety Last!, where Lloyd’s character (referred as The Boy in the credit or simply as Harold in the inter-title cards) climbs up the building of the department store where he works as the fabric seller in an effort to draw crowds and earn bonus money for his girlfriend, is an impeccable visual treat and meticulous film-making. The various obstacles Lloyd encountered upon this vertical adventure, from living creatures like a flock of pigeons or a basking hound, to the inconceivable such as a “firing” gun or a tennis net, are indeed the products of an ingenious mind.
My jaw drops and my teeth crunches as I am amazed by every steps (or every floors) Lloyd climbs and how he overcomes them one by one with hilarious and innovative solutions. My nerves are so tight like I’m the one climbing alongside Lloyd as well. The acrophobia, as a result, is as intense as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s CGI-aided Twin Towers tightrope walk in The Walk (2015).
The key of the visual magic is to place Lloyd, who was actually climbing on a set built on top of a building’s roof, in an illusive danger of hundreds feet high, it’s credited to the outstanding combination of tricky framing and delusive editing (there are wide shots clearly showing a human fly stunt man, dressed as Lloyd’s character, climbing an actual building). But without Lloyd’s convincing performance, the film would be like machine without a soul.
The Boy, as in other Lloyd’s films, is an every-man striving for accomplishment. His motivation is his love to his little town girlfriend (Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s wife in real life) whom he lies having great financial success in the city. But the truth is he’s just a working slave, a salesperson that couldn’t keep his clothes decent upon a crowd of ferocious customers, an employee that couldn’t earn respect from his exploitative supervisor (Westcott B. Clarke). The human fly climbing, originally planned to be the job of his limping pal Bill (Bill Strother), is forced upon him when Bill is busy in evading the law officer (Noah Young).
Climbing up the building is a self-evident allegory of climbing up the social ladder, you have to be on top of the others in order to achieve great success, and perhaps they could even be your obstacles. At the top of the ladder is the girl you want. Yes, it is the America dream of every-man.