Film review by Jason Day of the silent film comedy Safety Last! Starring Harold Lloyd, it concerns a young man working in a city department store who will stop at nothing to impress his girlfriend back home. Co-starring Mildred Davis.
The boy (Harold Lloyd) leaves his rural home to make a name for himself as a man of means in the city and to make his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) proud of him. He gets a job as a sales clerk in the De Vore Department store serving obnoxious customers, pretending that he has a better job. When his girlfriend makes a surprise visit, he has to pull out all the stops to make sure she doesn’t realise the truth.
Review, by Jason Day
Lloyd’s reputation as a filmmaker has suffered a certain amount of neglect when one compares him to his peers Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Part of this is Lloyd’s own fault.
Whilst the TV screening rights to the back catalogue of classics produced by Chaplin and Keaton were sold, reaping not only financial rewards but inducting audiences to the thrills and spills of their silent film comedy, Lloyd held back on his. He refusing to budge on his own pricing, hence many of his films remained for decades more or less unavailable.
It also helped that Chaplin (through making his own, new films every few years) and Keaton (via supporting roles in almost anyone else’s comedy work) kept fairly high profiles on the silver screen and TV during their advancing years.
Lloyd’s appearances before the camera were few and far between (he made only seven sound films and only one new movie after 1940) but compilation films released in the 1960’s helped to generate renewed interest.
Safety Last! is without a doubt the most famous of Lloyd’s output. The scene of him dangling precariously from the clock of a department store is also one of the most iconic images of silent cinema.
I have to admit that like many people I hadn’t seen any of Lloyd films, although I know well of his work. Safety Last! was the first of his I approached, seeing it as he himself intended, with a pipe organ accompaniment, during the Willis Pipe Organ Festival in Stony Stratford, 10 September 2016. I’ve never heard live pipe organ music to accompany a silent film before, but this certainly helped set the scene (all that was really needed was a bigger screen!).
Having Chaplin and especially Keaton in my memory as benchmarks with which to judge him and any other silent comedy was not fair. But considering the artful, balletic purity of Chaplin’s work and the breathless, mesmerising crescendo of comedy Keaton employed in his best 1920’s productions, they were going to be tough acts to follow.
I embrace the fact Lloyd is the ‘third genius’ of silent comedy and I enjoyed Safety Last! but despite the inventiveness of the comedy and the jaw-dropping, still exciting final sequence as he traverses the wall of a 12 storey building (I found myself edging closer and closer to the edge of my seat throughout), the laugh quota in this film is markedly less than in other silent comedies.
That’s not to say the laughs (when they come) aren’t big. I defy anyone to out-smart Lloyd in crisply and hilariously displaying how best to avoid the landlord when rent days comes, using only a coat and a coat-hook.
But the film sags noticeably in the middle during the department store sequences – there is fun to be had as Lloyd battles to serve as many demanding female customers as possible, but the guffaw tally is low. But that final sequence is a veritable gold mine of ingenuity that Lloyd mines for the last atom.
I shall, however, keep an eye out for future Lloyd comedies as Safety Last! is not the only famous comedy he made.
Davis, a frequent Lloyd co-star, would soon retire from acting to marry him, at his behest. Silent movie heroines, if not the actual main star, suffered somewhat from underexposure. Its clear from this film at least, Lloyd’s interest in Davis was now personal and not professional.
Co-director Wood would go on to big things in the sound era; he was one of the (uncredited) directors of Gone With the Wind (1939).
Cast & credits
Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Wood. 73 mins. Hal Roach/Pathe.
Producer: Hal Roach.
Writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan.
Camera: Walter Lundin.
Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke.