Review by Mikayla Mislak
From the April 2015 Issue
Safety Last! is a heartfelt comedy made in the golden age of the genre. Riddled with hilarious physical feats and memorable moments, the film stars Harold Lloyd as the ever-charming everyman. A simple story gives way to an exhilarating climax that still resonates today as one of the great stunts of silent cinema. With a closer look, this famous comedy also has some surprising things to say.
The film starts off with a clever trick. A close-up of a sorrowful Lloyd behind bars coupled with mournful horns lead the viewer to believe that the bespectacled hero is on his way to his execution. However, it is revealed that Lloyd’s future is not so grim and the music suddenly switches to emphasize this change. It is almost as if directors, Newmeyer and Taylor, are saying “gotcha!” This prank is one of the many ways that Safety Last! plays on its audiences’ emotions.
The premise of the film fiddles with familiar plot themes. In the beginning, “The Boy” (literally what Lloyd’s character is titled as) says his goodbyes to his mother and fiancée (Mildred Davis), promising not to return until he’s “made good” in the city. We all know his dreams are naïve at best, considering that many of those who dream of success end up scouring the streets. Fast forward a few months and our expectations are proven to be correct. Penniless, our protagonist sacrifices necessities such as rent and food to keep up the façade that he has made it. The person he wants to impress, of course, is his fiancée.
Keeping up this predictable, yet still entertaining act proves to be a bit more life threatening than “The Boy” had originally planned. The goal of keeping his fiancée’s heart does not seem to be the worth the risk, though. Case in point: he will literally risk his life to secure her happiness and approval, while she refuses to marry him until he’s successful.
Despite the shallowness of the woman that drives “The Boy’s” actions, the film is well worth the watch for Lloyd alone. The man clearly possesses all of the comedic necessities: vivid expressions, willingness to perform hilarious (and occasionally dangerous) stunts, and most importantly, he portrays a character everyone can root for.
Lloyd’s expressions have a way of being both exaggerated and very human at the same time. They are readable to the point where we can almost see every thought that is going through his character’s mind. The close-ups are a bit jarring and sudden at times, but his expressions make them worth it, especially since they help draw us further into his trials and tribulations.
As mentioned previously, Lloyd astounds with impressive stunts and well-executed slapstick. The film is well seasoned with his characteristic physical comedy. One such exemplary sequence involves his hysterical struggle to make it to work on time. Desperately looking for a mode of transportation, he spots a parked ambulance. Naturally, he plops himself on the ground and pretends to be injured while the medic’s back is turned. Eventually, the medic notices and loads him into the ambulance on a stretcher. While inside, Lloyd feverishly checks his watch and looks out the window – shown through a marvelous point-of-view shot – each time the medic turns away. Lloyd makes a funny situation even more entertaining with his causal expressions and airy movements and the medic’s reaction to Lloyd suddenly telling the driver to pull over is downright priceless.
Lloyd fulfills the last requirement particularly well. His everyman character casts a strange spell on his audience, making them deeply affected by his every struggle and triumph. The whole reason we go to witness these imaginary heroes is to have someone to cheer on and live through. His successes become our successes, and we learn from his mistakes. Not only is he morally appealing but taking his humorous quirks into consideration, he’s engaging to boot! What more can you ask for in a comedic protagonist?
Although Lloyd is delightful, the climax is what makes this film memorable. Through a series of mishaps, Lloyd’s character is forced to climb a tall building in front of a live audience. This death-defying ascension is perhaps the most recognizable and suspenseful of stunts in film history. Impressive camerawork, hilarious obstacles, and Lloyd’s clumsy movements perfectly combine to make this scene wonderfully thrilling. Just try not to cringe in fear as Lloyd dangles from a clock tower hand! To its core, this scene defines the term “nail-biting.”
At a closer look, the sequence is another hurdle in Lloyd’s constant struggle, as well as a clever metaphor. From the start, Lloyd’s character has desperately tried to ascend the social and economic ladder in order to secure the heart of his beloved. The many obstructions he faces while climbing the building clearly parallel the obstacles he faces in order to be a man of fortune and therefore worthy of marriage. Perhaps this symbolic scene could even go as far as to represent the familiar chase of the “American Dream” in general. After all, is it not what Lloyd has been running after all along?
Safety Last! is certainly not a movie to be missed. It is comedy with sense, yet still it maintains a universal humor and breathes life into familiar themes. Lloyd uses this humor and familiarity to make us not only laugh at his character, but also empathize with him. In addition, the film contains such a perfect portrayal of suspense in the apartment-scaling finale that it has caused the sequence to stand the test of time. A silent triumph, Safety Last! holds audiences by the heart and never lets go.
4 out of 5 stars