Safety Last (1923), dir. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor. USA
‘Roach once said, “Harold Lloyd worked for me because he could play a comedian. He was not a comedian. He was the best actor I ever saw being a comedian . . . No one worked harder than he did.” The actor Jobyna Ralston, recalling Lloyd’s gag perfectionism in A Sailor-Made Man, said that a simple scene of “nonchalantly” lighting a cigarette “required over five hours of filming! . . . It is the same in all Lloyd comedies. If genius really is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Harold Lloyd amply rates the title of genius.” A note of condescension rings in these testimonials—as though they are saying that a strong work ethic is no substitute for natural talent. But that’s a naive view of the truth of art-making. Surely it’s worth all the rigor in the world—painstaking camera placement, physically grueling takes, Kubrick-caliber devil-in-the-detailism—to sear into the brains of present and future viewers something as dream-elegant and distressing as a man hanging from a clock at 2:45 in the afternoon.’
Abigail: This was an absolute delight! We seem to be well on our way to talkies – the title cards are now used almost exclusively for dialogue – one was even printed very small, to show the distance of the speaker. The stunts were spectacular, and funny. Each gag was hilarious, but also built towards the larger story. This is the first movie, at least in our limited docket of film history, that utilized the whole film to tell a story. We did start to break away from the stage/proscenium POV in Broken Blossoms, but the idea of vignettes between explanation hadn’t really gone away until this one. The sight gags were spectacular, and really used the medium as a visual delight and thrill.
Forrest: “Safety Last” is so ridiculously enjoyable that it ought to be required viewing. It’s a crisp, headlong, thrilling 73 minutes, without a wasted second. Harold Lloyd, now neglected, deserves a place of honor in the pantheon of silent comics next to Keaton and Chaplin. The comedy is so effortless it almost doesn’t occur to you how extraordinary it is. And it’s not only the film’s climactic set piece, featuring Lloyd scaling the dizzying heights of the DeVore department store, that’s so impressive. The tiny, almost incidental moments are considered and executed as lovingly as the big ones. Take, for instance, Lloyd and his roommate hiding from their landlady. They’re behind in rent, and when she threatens to comes into their rooms they put on their overcoats and hang themselves on the coatrack, drawing their legs up inside the coats so that they’re invisible when she enters. It’s wonderful, as is the interplay between Lloyd and his co-star (and real-life-wife) Mildred Davis. Actually, the whole thing is wonderful. If you haven’t already, watch it. If you have, watch it again.