Safety Last! [50 Films Older Than Me #4]

Just lately, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #4. 

Spoilers ahead.  

Safety Last!

Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor

Release Year:  1923 (47 years before I was born)

What it is about:  A young man heads to the city to find fortune, hoping to eventually marry his childhood sweetheart. In his letters, he boasts about his position, claiming to be have a high position at a department store when he is just a salesman. This becomes complicated when his girlfriend comes to see him on a surprise visit. Desperate for money, he concocts a crazy scheme to help his store get more customers: he arranges for his talented friend to scale the outside of the 12 story building as a publicity stunt. But when the moment arrives, circumstances lead him to have to do the climbing himself, something he only narrowly survives.

Starring Harold Lloyd a “The Boy” (implied to actually be named Harold Lloyd in the context of the movie), Mildred Davis as “The Girl” (his girlfriend), Bill Strother as The Pal (the talented climber), Noah Young as The Law (a police officer who goes to great lengths to try to arrest the Pal) and Westcott B. Clarke as the Floorwalker (Harold’s immediate superior and nemesis in the department store).

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I knew of this as a famous silent comedy and was aware of the iconic image of Lloyd dangling from a clock, but that’s about it.

Reality: Compared to many a serious film student, my silent-film exposure is pretty limited. I’ve seen a handful of Charlie Chaplin’s works and a bunch of Buster Keaton’s, but not much else. As such as I feel a bit ill-qualified to analyze Safety Last!, understanding the movie’s artistic and historical context even less than normal. But part of the point of this series is to expose myself to some of the cinematic roads less traveled (by me) and so here we are.

Taken just from the point of view of someone who simply likes movies and doesn’t mind watching older ones, I have to say that I loved Safety Last! It’s a film which is full of gags, but is never in a rush to deliver them. Instead, they come at a measured pace, giving us a steady stream of laughs which impressed me by their variety. There are the broad physical jokes, naturally, which highlight Harold Lloyd’s impressive athleticism (as well as that of his occasional stunt team)–necessary for this type of humor, of course. There is a clever bit, for example, where Lloyd sneaks late into his work by pretending to be a mannequin being carried by a workman.

But there are also subtler jokes, which get carefully set up by the direction in a way that shows a lot of attention to detail. The complexity of ideas that are communicated in silent cinematic language is really quite impressive. An example of this is the whole sequence where Harold has his girlfriend in his boss’s office, which she believes is his–he has to keep up the pretense while not getting himself into trouble with the various people who keep coming in. It’s extremely funny but also impressively clever.

There are even a couple of neat gags that are built around intentionally misleading camerawork–the framing and intertitles imply that Harold is in prison at one point, but really he’s just at a train station; and in another scene it looks like he is being beat up, but he’s actually just having a busy day at work.

And of course, there’s that ending. The whole last 30% of the movie or so features Lloyd scaling the side of a twelve floor building for a publicity stunt, thinking at each new level that his friend is going to take his place, but each time being disappointed. The famous bit where he’s hanging by the clock is just one of a multitude of amazing moments. He’s attacked by a flock of pigeons, he’s harassed by spectators, he’s tangled in a net, he swings around wildly on a rope…one hilarious visual after another. Combine that with the absolute nerve-wracking tension of the scene–you know there is illusion involved but you also feel desperately worried that he’s going to fall and die at any second–and you have got one impressive piece of cinema.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Outstandingly enjoyable with lots of gags, many of which feel fresh and land well, and a decent amount of characterization and plot considering the type of film it is.

See here for the Master List.

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