Blog Directory CineVerse: It's time to tip our hat to this 99-year-old masterpiece

It's time to tip our hat to this 99-year-old masterpiece

Monday, May 30, 2022

Harold Lloyd is regarded as the third genius of silent film comedy (although there are certainly more than a trio that can claim this status), right behind Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Perhaps his finest hour (73 minutes, to be exact) is Safety Last, a timeless laugher from 1923 with a higher ratio of yuks per minute than arguably any funny film ever made. Here’s a summary of our CineVerse group’s talking points when we met last week to analyze this unimpeachable classic (to hear a recording of our group chat, click here).

What elements in Safety Last stood out as impressive, unique, noteworthy, or unanticipated?

  • The events and stunts look and feel real, largely because the movie was shot on location outdoors in Los Angeles using actual buildings and featuring non-acting crowds that arrived to watch. It also looks authentic because Harold Lloyd and a human fly stuntman actually scaled that building, with a circus performer used for the foot-hanging-from-a-rope scene. Lloyd and these performers took significant risks and jeopardized their lives to make the action appear as genuine as possible. The filmmakers don’t use special effects or rear screen projection. Lloyd’s stunt work is all the more remarkable considering that he lost a thumb and index finger on one of his hands a few years earlier.
  • Lloyd, unlike silent comedian contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, benefited from an everyman look and quality as well as his rounded spectacles, which gave him a more intelligent yet fallible appearance. Lloyd is billed as “the boy,” but his employee card clearly lists him as “Harold Lloyd.”
    • Lloyd said in interviews: “Someone with glasses is generally thought to be studious and an erudite person to a degree, a kind of person who doesn’t fight or engage in violence, but I did, so my glasses belied my appearance. The audience could put me in a situation with that in mind, but I could be just the opposite to what was supposed…In the pictures that I did, I could be an introvert, a little weakling, and another could be an extrovert, the sophisticate, the hypochondriac. They looked alike in appearance, with the glasses, which I guess you’d call a typical American boy.”
  • The movie’s first half primarily takes place indoors, while outdoor scenes dominate the second half.
  • The picture goes non-stop without any slowdown or weak scenes and is chock full of great jokes and gags—the finest and most extended of which is the scaling of the building—but there are gags within gags and climaxes within climaxes that layer the film with comedy and thrills. Amazingly, however, this 73-minute film only has about 10 scenes.
    • Despite its reputation as one of the greatest and funniest silent comedies, arguably, Safety Last is more entertaining and fulfilling as a thriller than a comedy.
  • Fascinatingly, Lloyd made more films and money than Chaplin and Keaton combined in their prime years.

Major themes

  • Good and bad timing. The boy is pressured to arrive at work on time, and frequently it appears that time is not on his side, but an actual clock face serves as a lifeline and continually he has the benefit of fortuitous timing. Consider, too, all the visual nods to time: the clock face, his body swinging like a pendulum, and the timeclock at work.
    • From the start, we are told: “The boy was always early.”
  • The economic and practical challenges of surviving and thriving in an increasingly industrialized metropolis. From public transportation that can’t accommodate him to throngs of angry customers seeking service in a busy department store, the boy is faced with one obstacle after another. His lack of capital also proves daunting.
  • Adapting quickly to your environment and thinking fast on your feet. Despite the numerous impediments and setbacks he faces, the boy learns to rapidly and intrepidly use surrounding resources to his advantage: from passing cars that transport him to work to coat hooks that hide him from the landlord to scissors he employs Solomon-like to settle an argument between two customers to a flagpole that helps him escape an angry dog.

Similar works

  • Films by Chaplin and Keaton, including Modern Times, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The General
  • Man on Wire
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
  • Die Hard
  • Project A

Other films by Harold Lloyd

  • The Freshman
  • Speedy
  • Grandma’s Boy
  • Why Worry?
  • Never Weaken
  • Girl Shy
  • For Heaven’s Sake

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