Fridays with Harold Lloyd continues and this week we look at one of Lloyd’s most iconic works; one that has become a visual legend throughout cinema history.
An unnamed Boy (Lloyd) wants to impress his girl (Mildred Davis) by becoming a man of distinction. Unfortunately, despite telling his girlfriend he’s a general manager in a department store, he’s nothing more than a lowly clerk. When she comes to visit him, the boy gets the opportunity to rise up the ranks, but ends up rising up a building during a publicity stunt.
In last week’s review of The Freshman (1925) I mentioned the inclusion of audio commentary by Leonard Maltin, and how Lloyd’s films are best enjoyed with an audience. Having no experience with Lloyd, and lacking an audience, the commentary and laughter helped enhance the humor and narrative simultaneously.
My copy of Safety Last lacked the commentary, sadly, and it proves what Maltin and crew said about needing audience enhancement with Lloyd’s work. While the story, stunts, and Lloyd’s effervescence are all on-display, I felt the film lacked something and I don’t want to chalk it all up to the communal experience, but that might be it.
Taking it apart, piece by piece, I’m already noticing Lloyd tropes that, safe to assume, continue on into other films. Once again Lloyd is the everyman trying to make good, this time in the business world. Much like The Freshman Lloyd plays a character with his own name – despite the titles crediting him as The Boy a pay stub lists his full name.
The two sure things in life are death and taxes, and the film’s opening tells us Lloyd could end up securing the former before paying the latter. We watch him leaving his small town and going off to the big city, but not before a gag leads you to believe Lloyd’s in prison waiting to hang, but, really, he’s waiting to catch the train.
Where The Freshman saw Lloyd seeking collegiate popularity, his aims in Safety Last! are even simpler – he wants to be a success in his girlfriend’s eyes, even if he has to lie to do it. “She’s just got to believe I’m successful…until I am.” From there we watch Lloyd in a series of call and return gags, trying to make ends meet and keep up the façade that he’s got money. For every dime he spends on trinkets for his girl, that’s a cup of coffee or slice of toast not going into his gullet.
Lloyd’s attempts to make good, while wacky, are relatable in his basic desire to stay solvent; trying to evade his landlord by hiding in his hanging coat on the wall is particularly ingenious, as is his customer service experiences. The moments where he’s working behind the counter at his department store job will resonate with anyone aware of the adage “the customer is always right.” As he’s nearly ripped in two by hordes of female shoppers Lloyd’s exhausted expressions and body contortions give off a grotesque parody of a typical salesperson’s inner torment. A simple moment like a customer looking at thirty different linens only to want the first item (and a sample, no less) leaves you chuckling at Lloyd’s misfortune and having similar experiences in your past.
Unlike The Freshman, which built set-piece upon set-piece in a metaphorical ladder for Lloyd’s rise to success, the stakes take on a literal climb by story’s end with his infamous “human fly” routine up the department store building. Each level involves multiple gags, such as Lloyd’s friend being chased by a cop, various people in the building urging Lloyd ever higher, and nature attacking. Though Lloyd wasn’t several stories up, he still climbed a façade that was off the ground, and it’s amazing how effortless he makes the whole thing look. Sure, he’s scrambling to find footholds, but you never see him sweat. By the end, a kiss from his lady-love just seem anticlimactic, but Lloyd’s films are always about the romance, first and foremost.
As usual, Lloyd is compellingly watchable, a master of facial acting and physical acumen. It is a bit odd how much pleasure his girl derives in watching him berate and command employees, but by the end it’s assumed she’s interested in Lloyd more for his personality than his bank balance. Mildred Davis is at a slight disadvantage as Lloyd’s lady-love, but she was married to him so their chemistry has an added authenticity. Unlike The Freshman’s leading lady, Jobyna Ralston, Davis’ character isn’t idealized – there are no interesting camera angles highlighting her as an ideal woman – and her compulsion for Lloyd to succeed leaves you questioning her real intentions.
I know Safety Last! is considered a landmark title in Lloyd’s canon, but it lacked the complexity, both in the filmmaking and the narrative, that The Freshman had. The final act with the human fly is breathtaking, but there doesn’t seem to be a natural fluidity from A to B to make him climbing the wall plausible, probably because Lloyd filmed all the big action pieces first and built the plot around them. (The Freshman was the film that focused on plot first, gags second.) It definitely kept me entertained. I haven’t lost my faith in Lloyd yet!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.