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The images from silent cinema that have survived are not the ones from the epic dramas of the day, with their overacting and drop-dead seriousness. What is still with us are those comedies – physical comedy is entirely visual. We need no words or sounds to laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel. There were three great comedians from that time. They made films that varied so much from one another that you could never mistake them. They created images that are ingrained in our minds that tell you everything you need to know about their work.
There's Charlie Chaplin, sitting in a door frame with young Jackie Coogan – torn pants and all – pulling at your heartstrings in The Kid. Or Buster Keaton is sitting on the nose of The General, ready to lose his life for the sake of making us laugh and yet we have no idea what he's thinking. Finally, there's a man with horn-rimmed glasses hanging from a giant clock, fighting for his life and against time, the only thing you're guaranteed to lose in life. Of course, that man is Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, which is widely regarded as his finest film. And if you only know it for that one scene, you're missing one of the best comedies ever.
In Safety Last!, like he does in many of his films, Lloyd plays a boy named Harold. Here, Harold decides to move to the city and get a job. He needs money to marry his girl, played by Lloyd's soon-to-be wife, Mildred Davis. Harold tells Mildred he has to “make good” in the city and he does, quickly getting a job as a department store clerk. But he's living paycheck-to-paycheck and not the big executive he tells Mildred he is in the letters.
While he's a good clerk, but when he shows up late, he gets in trouble with the boss and has to come up with a quick scheme to keep his job, especially when Mildred shows up unannounced. Inspired by seeing his friend (Bill Strother – a real 'Human Fly') climb a building, Harold tells the store manager that he can get the 'Human Fly' to climb up the building as a publicity stunt. They like the idea, but since his friend is in trouble with a cop, Harold winds up climbing the building himself, setting up the tense and thrilling finale.
Like Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd had a stable of people who helped him craft his vision, but unlike those two, Lloyd didn't take directing credit. Safety Last! is credited to Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer, two men who helped devise Lloyd's gags and to make sure they worked. Sure, there's no mistaking the fact that everything we see on screen is how Lloyd pictured it in his head, but his crew made sure that was all possible. Hal Roach, the man who gave cinema Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy, was especially instrumental in Lloyd's career and takes a story credit on Safety Last!.
And what gags Lloyd & Company came up with! With just 73 minutes to play with, they never stop. Right from the beginning there's this genius gag where we see bars and what looks like a noose. Is Harold going off to the gallows? No, he's just getting on a train! My favorite scene is easily in the department store, when there's too many customers for Harold and he comes up with ingenious ways to serve them.
It all culminates in that climactic climb up the wall, in which Lloyd has his friend running from a cop inside while he tries to climb the building. The sequence is a string of one epic gag after the other. Just when you think they can't possibly top one funny moment, another one comes right after to make you laugh again.
On Home Video: The Harold Lloyd estate has picked The Criterion Collection to work with to release Lloyd's films on Blu-ray, making the old 2005 New Line Entertainment sets obsolete. Safety Last! was the first from Criterion, released in June. While the disc has plenty of extras like three Lloyd shorts and an interview with composer Carl Davis, the highlight is Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, a lengthy documentary that provides a great introduction to the master, his life and his work.
Safety Last! isn't going anywhere, as long as we struggle against time and look for a way to laugh at it. Chaplin can have his sentimentality and Keaton can keep the Great Stone Face, but Lloyd's pursuit to “make good” is offered to everyone in the audience. He wants us to pursue it with him and he makes sure the journey never gets boring.