Grade A-Safety Last! (1923)

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer

Stars: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strothers

Release Company: New Line

MPAA Rating: NR

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Harold Lloyd: Safety Last!


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Although Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton stand atop the pantheon of Silent Era comedians, Harold Lloyd stands nearby, ready to overtake either should their reputations take an unlikely tumble. Not likely, and rather fruitless to subject rank order to these comic geniuses, who all possessed remarkable skills and played off each other and "competed" into the early 1920's. The straw-hatted, horn-rimmed scholarly appearing Lloyd compares more closely to Keaton for his unbelievable daredevil stunts and knack for "getting the girl" (in real life he marries his co-star after this feature), yet his facial expressions mirror Chaplin's ability for emoting--making him a unique combo of the two. Had he directed more films, his subsequent stature may have equaled Chaplin and Keaton.

As it is, Lloyd made some damn fine films that are even more amazing when realizing that he did his own stunts with some courageous cameramen that didn't rely on special effects. After a serious hand injury that caused him to lose part of his thumb, a finger, and palm in 1919, Lloyd did fewer features afterwards and covered his injured hand with a glove or prosthetic (of his 209 films beginning in 1913 just 33 were produced after 1919). Still, the film for which Lloyd will forever be remembered due to the striking image of the bespectacled actor hanging from the skyscraper clock above the busy street was made in 1923--Safety Last!

Although the film has become an icon due to that incredible image, it's well worth checking out all 73 minutes, especially if you have a chance to see the newly restored version put together by the Harold Lloyd Trust. Supporting the stunt set pieces is a tightly constructed plot for the romantic comedy that contains touches of social class commentary, poking fun of pretentious people and subverting authority—motifs that Chaplin is so well known for. Lloyd's impeccable timing and Hal Roach's productions flair for sight gags also plays a major part in the enjoyment--the first notable one plays off a prison gallows motif. Also hilarious is Lloyd's methodical way of escaping the landlady when rent come due.

But what everyone anticipates is the climatic climb up the 12-story skyscraper to get to the memorable clock scene. Bookending this highlight are other equally funny and dangerous tricks and obstacles, including: extreme pigeon and mouse harassment, vicious dog attack, tennis net interference, protruding two by four, and a faux rope rescue. The clock-hanging scene certainly makes a great image since Lloyd's precarious position is framed beautifully in a true Kodak moment, but other stunts are actually even more breath taking, especially when considering Lloyd's hand injury and the appearance that the business suited character with dress shoes was hardly dressed for the occasion.

What inspired Lloyd to construct the landmark set piece was the chance sighting of a large crowd gathering beside of the Brockman Building:

"Upon inquiring, I found that a 'human spider' was going to scale the side of that building. This naturally intrigues anyone; to see a feat like that kind performed. So I stayed around for awhile and pretty soon a rather young fellow came out and was introduced, and there was a certain amount of commercialism attached to it at first. Without much ado, he started at the bottom of the building and started to climb up . . . Well, it had such a terrific impact on me that when he got to about the third or fourth floor I couldn't watch him anymore. My heart was in my throat, and so I started walking up the street. I walked about a block . . . but of course, I kept looking back all the time to see if he was still there. . ."
The "human spider" that Lloyd witnessed that day was supporting actor Bill Strother, who performs a similar feat in Safety Last! and provides the impetus for the plot to unfold. A most fortuitous chance meeting by Harold Lloyd that led to his most famous scene; however, this film provides far more pleasures than that brief moment and should be much more widely watched than it has been. Combining the heart of Chaplin and the physical dexterity and daring of Keaton, it holds up and crosses all generations, including young people who "think" they don't like black and white films.

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