The First-Rate Follies of ‘Safety Last!’

By Nick Rogers

Instead of exaggerating society’s eccentricities (however memorably), Harold Lloyd distinguished himself from silent-film peers Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton by embracing everyday matters of his era and audience.

Lloyd’s clear-eyed optimism contrasted Chaplin’s stories of downtrodden sorrow, and his harmlessly rapscallion responses to madcap incidents (often of his own invention) inverted Keaton’s stony stoicism.

Put another way, Lloyd was the classic everyman … but one who, directly or indirectly, eternally influenced entertainers specializing in the everyday and the extraordinary.

You see Lloyd in Steve Coogan’s comic exasperation, the gee-shucks entrepreneurial spirit of Max Greenfield’s Schmidt on Fox’s New Girl, or the blissful ignorance of Peter Sellers characters. But you also see Lloyd in Jackie Chan’s martial-arts bemusement, the adrenaline and adoration courted by Evel Knievel or space-jumper Felix Baumgartner, the social prankster spirit of World Trade Center wire-walker Philippe Petit, and even Tom Cruise’s Hollywoodized derring-do in the Mission: Impossible films.

Lloyd perhaps never more perfectly melded sweetness and spectacle than in 1923’s hilarious, thrilling Safety Last! All at once, the title cleverly contorts a common phrase, issues fair warning that these follies could have just as easily turned fatal, and, in historical hindsight, signifies a sort of melancholy for where its consumer-driven comedy beats would lead the United States a half-decade later.

A scene in which “women of culture and refinement” (as the intertitle quips) approach a department store pattern sale like barbarians at the gate is funny but not scolding; like Lloyd’s character, they may simply be trying to make the most of a great deal for the heart and happiness of someone they love.

For Harold (so named as Chan once was often just “Jackie”), that great deal is a $1,000 payout split with his spider-limbed friend if they can successfully promote the Los Angeles store where Harold toils each day. The idea: Draw a crowd to watch a “mystery man” (his friend) scale the store’s 12-story building that will then flock to spend at the store. The loved one on whose behalf Harold dreams big? His betrothed back home who believes him to be the store’s general manager rather than a mere clerk.

A resultant comedy of errors forces nebbish Harold to climb the building himself – persisting amid persnickety pigeons, painters, pooches, and policemen before hanging precariously from a clock face in one of cinema’s most indelible images.

Through confidently unbroken takes, a multitude of cameras magnificently captures the spectacular scope of the stunt – largely performed by Lloyd himself, and with so little obvious evidence of movie magic that even CGI cynics’ eyes will widen in wonder.

The higher Harold climbs, the wilder and woolier things get. But note how the shots also emphasize the world churning below – a city full of folks engaged in earthbound, but equally essential, quests for success. (This isn’t the only visual poetry amid the pandemonium; earlier, Harold watches his lunch vanish, plate by plate, from a tray as he forks over money for a bauble for his beloved.)

Ultimately, Safety Last! affirms Harold’s sweet deceits and dangerous deeds by refuting the idea that success and selfishness must be bedfellows, or that to be economically unburdened is to be emotionally uncaring. The idea to continually aspire and ascend – and someday succeed – propels both the brilliance of Safety Last! and the enduring legacy of Lloyd’s appeal.

Nick Rogers has reviewed films in print and online for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic and member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association, Rogers’ current work can be found online at The Film Yap.