Oh Harold, it would just break my heart if you failed...
PopGap #25: Safety Last! (1923)
I watched Harold Lloyd's The Freshman last year, and it was my first exposure to the silent comedy sensation who has since become largely overshadowed by his more iconic peers. My reaction then — Lloyd's Everyman persona is a fresh but less engaging alternative to Chaplin and Keaton; his movie starts slow but hits a winning stride in the third act — is almost identical to how I felt about his 1923 hit Safety Last!. However, Safety Last!'s finale is not only funny, but jaw-dropping.
Lloyd stars as... himself, except that in Safety Last! he's a small-town striver trying to survive in the big city. Hardly making ends meet with his lowly job at a department store, Lloyd sends wholly fictitious letters back to his hometown sweetheart (Mildred Davis), boasting of meteoric success. It's an early iteration of a classic comedy trope, and Lloyd is a pleasant protagonist for it: a self-centered and oblivious naïf whose careless schemes backfire with 9:1 probability. Even though Lloyd's personality is not exactly compelling, his comic rhythms are perfect, and there's a lining of ingenuity to his vision that distinguishes otherwise mild gags. However, Safety Last! builds toward a riveting spectacle, as Lloyd's foolhardy ambition to climb in society culminates in him actually climbing the exterior of a tall city building in a death-defying publicity stunt.
Directors Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor film the climbing sequence from angles that suggest real peril for Lloyd in this age predating sophisticated special effects. This finale is not only gripping, but those stakes elevate the humor, producing the movie's biggest laughs. Like most silent comedies, Safety Last! is short — just over an hour — and never worse than agreeable, but it's ending is a must-see among the great silent comedy set pieces.
Safety Last! was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Josh Haysom, who can be found on Flickchart under the username Quirky. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #88 (99%, out of 8228 movies) and 4th highest among the 29 comedies that he's seen from 1920s. On my chart, Safety Last! ranked at #1021/3737 (73%), where it's my 4th favorite out of six comedies of the 1920s.
Notes on Safety Last! (1923)
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