johnlink ranks SAFETY LAST! (1923)

Must plead ignorance, here, as it relates to Harold Lloyd. I’ve always been equal parts Keaton and Chaplin when it comes to silent comedy. I’ve always known of Lloyd, and have certainly seen bits and clips, yet I’ve never just sat down and experienced one of his comedies. But I have now!


I watched SAFETY LAST! (1923) on 10.14.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

The film opens with a man and a noose. Simple and clear imagery foreshadowing seeming doom. Yet, instead, this movie becomes a madcap comedy of quickness and unrestrained optimism. The noose may hang there like a threat, yet the movie never ventures back to such a foreboding place. Instead the obstacles are money, society, a blundering police officer, and a curmudgeon of a store supervisor.

Lloyd plays The Boy, a young man who woos a girl (Mildred Davis) with his materialistic charms. She is ignorant to the fact that he has little money and only, as the film explains, a job rather than a position. He is eager enough and resourceful enough to play the game well. When she visits him at the store he begins a long game of deception involving dozens of employees and his bosses. He convinces her that he is in charge, that he is the man all answer to. It is one of the film’s two major scenarios. It is the less famous one because it lacks the physical danger of the climax, but it is wonderfully realized.

Lloyd doesn’t have the per-minute physical hi-jinx of Chaplin. Yet in a scene where he attempts to get to work via multiple modes of transportation, the filming of his physical grace and his ability to flow through the movie is every bit as detailed and beautiful as the movement of Chaplin. Lloyd benefits from some top notch scenario writing, but he absolutely capitalizes on its potential in scenes as physically specific as a moment when he hides form his landlord in a hanging coat and as daunting as the climb of the building at film’s end.

Keaton’s stone face displayed seeming indifference to the craziness around him. Chaplin’s tramp was resigned to a fate he constantly fought against. In SAFETY LAST, Lloyd’s Boy is eager and earnest clever. That cleverness leads to danger, which leads to more cleverness. It’s a cycle which builds in danger, and it is a joy to watch. The filmmakers keep the iris closed around Lloyd for much of the climb. They are more concerned with the struggle of character than the danger.

The fact that a double was used could potentially pull from the allure as Lloyd climbs a dozen story building to earn $500. Lloyd, in fact, long denied the use of a double though the truth came out after his death.  Yet the danger of the moment feels real. We feel for the character. We never see a moment which feels cheated or manipulated, even if it was. Sometimes, as viewers of film, we are so concerned with the behind the scenes that we forget to enjoy the scenes themselves. Does it ultimately matter that Lloyd had a stunt double? It shouldn’t.

This is a film which stands up surprisingly well 90 years on. The inanity of the workplace in a department store setting is dead on. Anyone who has worked in retail over a holiday season will see plenty of themselves in The Boy as he struggles against the crowd. The print I saw was as crisp and clear as any 20s cinema I’ve viewed. Like the great movies of this era, you don’t have to spend any time reminding yourself that it is merely good for its time, because it is good for any time.

As my three year old begins to watch narrative film in a more linear way these days, I do think about introducing him to silent cinema (his favorite film now is WALL-E thanks, in large part, to how little dialogue interrupts the story). I know I should show him THE GENERAL, I think he’d like the blustery GOLD RUSH. But, really, SAFETY LAST! absolutely belongs in that conversation as a wonderful introduction to how good silent comedy can be.



The bonus point is for the wonderful nature of the physical comedy. Truly a joy to behold!



~ by johnlink00 on October 16, 2013.

One Response to “johnlink ranks SAFETY LAST! (1923)”

  1. […] SAFETY LAST! […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: