Safety Last! (1923)
TCM had a line-up of Harold Lloyd films fairly recently, and I caught about 30 minutes of Girl Shy (1924) before having to head off to work that morning. I had never seen a Harold Lloyd film before, but immediately I was intrigued. Harold Lloyd was the most famous male comedian during the silent era, selling far more tickets than either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton had managed to do. Yet today it is Keaton and Chaplin who are remembered and revered, not Lloyd. Part of this neglect no doubt has to do with the fact that Lloyd held on to copyright control of his films after retirement. He refused to rerelease them to theaters because he did not want them to be accompanied by a pianist; theaters were just not equipped with organists anymore. In addition to this preference, Lloyd charged $300,000 for a double showing of one of his films on television, which inevitably closed the door on his films for a large segment of the public. Good thing most of his films are now remastered and available on DVD.
Safety Last! concerns a young man, Harold (Harold Lloyd), who goes to the big city in order to make enough money to marry his sweetheart, Mildred (Mildred Davis, Lloyd’s future wife). Harold is unable to make a big break, however, and gives his all to a job as a floor clerk in a department store. He faithfully writes to dear Mildred back home, but takes pains to create the impression that he is far more successful that his circumstances actually merit. This charade is easy enough to maintain through the mail, but things get a bit more difficult when Mildred decides to take a trip to the city and visit Harold at work. Harold is just barely able to keep his head above water when he pretends to order around his coworkers and occupy the boss’s office just long enough to satisfy Mildred’s curiosity.
Just as Harold begins to despair over the lack of money that Mildred will most certainly realize, he overhears the store manager trying to think up a gimick to get more customers in the store. “I’ll give someone $1,000 to think of a way…” he remarks, which grabs Harold by the shirt collar. He runs to hash out a plan with his roommate, who just happens to scale tall buildings for fun. Harold offers to split the money if his roommate (Bill Strother) will agree to climb up the side of the department store to the roof. He enthusiastically agrees, but the day of the stunt finds the two in some hot water. It seems that Bill has gotten on the wrong side of the police officer who is heading crowd control at the site of the stunt. He tells Harold that he’ll have to climb up a few floors himself, until he can lose the furious cop.
What follows is one of the most famous sequences in silent film. The clocktower sequence had me so nervous that my palms were actually sweating. Apparently, the wall that Harold is climbing was actually built on the roof of a skyscraper, and then photographed so as to maintain the illusion of perilous height. Whatever the authenticity of Lloyd’s stuntwork, each floor is a grueling ordeal. He must deal with a flock of pigeons, a snarling dog, his own vertigo, and slippery step after slippery step. The physicality of Lloyd’s comedy lends itself spectacularly to this scene, and his athleticism is astonishing. I’m not much for slapstick, but Loyd is able to transcend the crudeness of completely physical comedy and meld it into a more subtle product, much as Buster Keaton does so splendidly in his own films. The final result will keep me coming back for more.