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.
Director: Sam Wood.
Producer: Jesse Lasky. Writer: Jack Cunningham. Camera: Alfred Gilks. Music: Henny Vrienten (reissue).
Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Alec Francis, Robert Bolder, Edythe Chapman, Gertrude Astor, Mabel Van Buren, June Elvidge
Young Theodora (Swanson) marries a rich older man (Bolder) so her poor, beloved Father (Francis) doesn’t have to go without in his dotage. But she falls in love with a handsome English aristocrat (Valentino), who loves her just as deeply. Recognising her duty to her husband, she tells the hot-blooded lad to cool his heels and stay away. But he chases her across Europe on her honeymoon trying to convince her to change her mind. When her husband finds out about this mutual attraction, he leaves on an exploration to Africa, so the young lovers join a search party to bring him back and beg his forgiveness.
Only a romance filmed in the silent era could be so breathlessly paced, ravishingly photographed, splendidly costumed…and completely dumb in every other regard.
Considering the mighty star wattage on display from two of the era’s biggest and most sexually dynamic personalities, this is a comparatively limp and dusty affair. Swanson was at the peak of her Hollywood powers after a series of titillating social sex comedies with director Cecil B. De Mille and Valentino’s star was on the ascendant after his lusty turn in box office smash The Sheikh.
Cunningham provides a ‘Swiss Cheese’ plot being, as it is, full of holes. With scant regard to logic, humour or excitement, it’s not the most perfect of bases with which to construct a solid movie.
To list a few of those holes:
Considering this, it was not surprising that even the talented Wood (one of Swanson’s favoured directors and who would later go onto helm some major Hollywood classics in the sound era, such as Goodbye Mr Chips) was unable to stir up anything more than a pot-boiler drama, but he should have checked his pacing and scene numbers as the action certainly drags.
The film seems hurriedly made, produced to satisfy movie-mad audiences hunger to see more of the same with their favourite film stars, irrespective of the quality – the so-called ‘Star Era’ of Hollywood.
The story comes from a novel by the celebrated, racy romance author Elinor Glynn, so at least the Mills & Boon melodrama has an understandable provenance.
Posterity has seen that Swanson is held in high regard as a technically sophisticated actress who could underplay the silent movie camera with finesse and splendid timing, but here she overacts with annoying regularity. Befitting her status as a fashion icon, she seems happier parading in the most elaborate clothes and hairstyles of the day. Valentino could be a sensitive performer when the occasion called and here he is sweet and very affecting as a young stud who suddenly falls deeply in love. Cast as an English M’Lord, the titles beautifully explain away his exotic Latin looks by way of a conveniently “highborn Italian Grandmother”.
An important film in terms of film preservation, it was lost for more than 80 years, Swanson even appealed in her autobiography for people to come forward with any copies of the movie for her to watch again. Alas, she died long before a nitrate copy was found in the Netherlands Film Museum in 2003, spruced up and given a gala premier two years later, though some sections still show irreparable damage.