I have the utmost respect for the stunt performers who put their lives on the line to bring us all sorts of big screen thrills. However, I still find them to be outshined by some of the death-defying feats done in the name of comedy during the silent era from time to time. With nowhere near the level of safety equipment as we have today, performers like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin did some amazing gags. The king, however, was Harold Lloyd, and there is no other film that paints a better picture of the lengths this man would go to for a laugh than 1923’s Safety Last!
Lloyd plays a character (with the same name as his own) from a small town who heads off to the big city to make his fortune so he can one day afford to marry his sweetheart, Mildred (Mildred Davis). Though he does land a job selling fabric in a department store, he and his roommate, Limpy (Bill Strother), regularly have trouble paying the rent. It’s made worse since Harold can’t resist spending his money on gifts for his gal and sending them back home. His job isn’t a whole lot of fun either, as he often has to deal with difficult customers and a snooty manager. One day he even has to race across town to avoid being late for work after having been locked inside a laundry truck.
Suddenly, Mildred surprises Harold by showing up in town, expecting to marry her successful fiancee. Harold must go to great lengths to pretend that he is actually the store’s general manager. But then, he overhears the actual managers lamenting that they need something big to attract customers. Luckily, Harold has an idea. He asks if they will pay him $1,000 to have a man scale the side of the department store building, which is sure to draw a crowd. A few days earlier, Limpy displayed his skill for climbing buildings as he had to escape from an angry cop. The plan gets the green light and Limpy prepares for the climb. However, the cop zeroes in on the event and starts chasing Limpy. This leaves Harold with no choice but to do the stunt himself.
Safety Last! is an amazing film. The final act, featuring Harold’s climb up the building, is just plain nerve wracking…even today. There was no rear projection involved…the sequence was actually shot on the roof of an LA high rise. That’s real city traffic we see off in the distance behind Lloyd. There’s lots of camera trickery involved, as well, to make us think Harold is in much more danger than he really was. Even so, the sequence is dizzying, to say the least. What’s interesting is how natural the whole sequence of events feels. It doesn’t feel like Lloyd is going out of his way for the gag. It all flows in a very genuine way and Lloyd’s sense of timing is masterful.
This isn’t a case, though, where the rest of the film pales compared to the big climax (like with Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr.). Anyone who has worked in retail will love the scenes that take place in the department store. One moment in which crowds of women fight over different rolls of fabric looks a lot like Black Friday news footage we saw just a few months ago. Most on-the-nose, though, is the customer who grabs Harold just as the store closes wanting to look at every fabric he has on the shelf. Then, after going way beyond closing time, she only takes a swatch of the first fabric she looked at. These people still exist in our world today and they are the devil’s spawn. Lloyd is able to handle these sequences with subtle nuances in his facial expressions that communicate so much by doing so little. There’s also a real sweetness to many of his scenes with Mildred Davis. His approach to the love story is actually much more believable than say Chaplin, who could tend to get a bit sappy with the mushy stuff. In general, Harold just seems to be a bit more of a relatable character than Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s sad sack.
Put simply, Safety Last! is perhaps one of the greatest examples of silent comedy that we have. It has laughs, it has thrills, and it has heart. Plus, you’ll be wondering how on earth they pulled it off!