Safety Last! (1923) Criterion Collection DVD Review: A Silent Comedic Masterpiece

It is clearly the work of a man at the peak of his powers.
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The three comedic geniuses of the silent film era were Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. For various reasons, Keaton and Lloyd have not retained their popularity over the years the way Chaplin has though. After watching the new Criterion Collection edition of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923), I can certainly say that for him, the quality of his work is not at issue. This film is as fresh, irreverent, funny, and downright thrilling  as anything I have ever seen. Safety Last! is considered by many to be Lloyd’s masterpiece, and I see why. It is clearly the work of a man at the peak of his powers.

The premise is relatively simple. The Boy (Lloyd) promises The Girl (Mildred Davis) that he will marry her, as soon as he makes his way in the big city. He gets a job in a big department store, but quickly finds himself in trouble with snooty floorwalker Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke). To save his job, he comes up with a stunt that will draw hundreds of customers to the store. He says he will get someone to climb the outside of the skyscraper store building, all the way to the top.

The brilliant image of Harold Lloyd hanging on to the hands of a clock on the building remains an iconic one, and is used for the cover art of the DVD. I had never actually watched this scene before though, and was pleasantly surprised at how thrilling it still is. This moment is not even the climax of his climb though. The whole segment covers roughly the final third of the film, and is truly superb.

“The Climb” may get all of the attention when it comes to Safety Last! but there are a great many little moments that are memorable as well. One comes when Lloyd and his roommate/pal “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother) are hiding from the landlady on rent day. When she opens the door to their room, the two hide by jumping inside of their hanging overcoats. Another comes when he is buying a necklace for The Girl, and counts out his money. It is payday, and he has decided to treat himself to a nice big “business lunch.” As he lies down each dime for the necklace though, a piece of the meal vanishes, one by one. At the end, not even the cup of coffee is left.

Chaplin films such as The Gold Rush (1925) are deservedly remembered for their brilliant structure. Safety Last! is also very smartly put together. The set-up for the climb begins with Lloyd running in to an old friend from home, who is now a cop in the city. To show off to Bill, he says that they can prank the cop and get away with it. Unfortunately, the officers have changed shifts, and the one they pull the stunt on is not amused. He winds up chasing Bill around, and to get away, Bill climbs up the side of a building. This is where Lloyd gets the big idea. The prize money for a successful promotion is $1,000. Our scheming hero offers Bill $500 to climb the building, and if it works, Lloyd will get credit for it, plus his own $500.

When the big day comes, the policeman they punked is on duty, and starts chasing Bill up the stairs inside the building. Bill tells Harold to climb up to the next floor, where he will take over. Naturally, this continues floor by floor all the way up, and also includes the business with the clock.

Safety Last! was released 90 years ago, and the stunts and illusions hold up remarkably well. Lloyd’s films were comedies, but Safety Last! was also referred to as a “thrill picture,” and for good reason. We know that there was no CGI back then, and it really appears that Harold Lloyd is swinging off a clock some 100 feet above the street. I couldn’t help but to think of the recent Nik Wallenda Grand Canyon stunt, and of how much we still thrill to things like this.

Of course, it was an illusion, but not as much as one might think. The stunt shoot was actually pretty dangerous, and the way it was done is revealed in the bonus feature Locations and Effects. In this 20-minute piece, writer John Bengtson and effects expert Craig Barron walk us through the techniques Lloyd used. As we see, while the topography of downtown Los Angeles has changed, some things have remained, such as the building where many of the scenes were shot.

Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989) is a two-part, 108-minute study of Harold Lloyd’s life. The first half takes us from his birth in 1893, right up through Safety Last! in 1923. Part two continues from there up to his death in 1971. This is an excellent documentary, with a lot of information about his life both inside and outside of the industry. One thing that I found interesting, and very smart, was that he had invested much of his film profits into Beverly Hills real estate back in the 1920s. This paid off quite handsomely later on.

Safety Last! is presented with the option of two scores. The default is by Carl Davis, which was originally composed as part of a silent film restoration project for Thames Television in 1989. In “Carl Davis: Scoring for Harold” (23 minutes), Davis is interviewed about the choices he made in composing the film. His score complements the movie very well, and this piece provides some interesting background. The second score, and story behind it is also quite interesting. It was improvised to the film in 1969 by organist Gaylord Carter.

Suzanne Lloyd provides the Introduction, which is fairly lengthy at 17 minutes. She is Harold’s granddaughter, although she was actually raised by him and her grandmother Mildred Davis. Yes, the two were married after wrapping Safety Last! which turned out to be Mildred’s final movie.

As if all of these bonus features were not enough, there are also three restored Harold Lloyd shorts included. Take A Chance (1918) is a one-reeler, at 10 minutes, starring Lloyd’s first leading lady, Bebe Daniels. This cute romp has him taking a cleaning lady (Daniels) on a picnic, where he winds up being chased by the cops.

Young Mr. Jazz (1919) is another 10-minute short, also starring Bebe. She and Harold go to the Bowery Café, a speakeasy. A big brawl erupts when Dad comes looking for her.

His Royal Slyness (1920) is one of Lloyd’s earliest with wife-to-be Mildred Davis. This two-reel, 20-minute bit of fun begins on the “little kingdom of Thermosa,” where Lloyd switches places with a lookalike prince.

Audio commentary is provided by Leonard Maltin and director Richard Correll for Safety Last! There is also a booklet, featuring an essay by Ed Park.

After watching and being thrilled by Safety Last! the only reason I can come up with for Lloyd not being as widely remembered today as he should be, is that not enough of the current film-going generation are familiar with him. Here’s hoping that this two-DVD Criterion Collection edition of Safety Last! will introduce him to some of those people. I have certainly become a big fan after seeing it, and plan to seek out more Lloyd films. Genius is genius, no matter how many years have passed, and Safety Last! is something special indeed.

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