Safety Last! (1923)
Release Date: April 1st, 1923 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Fred Neymeyer, Sam Taylor Actors: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott B. Clarke
oung Harold (Harold Lloyd) is behind bars in Great Bend, ready to be hanged – or so it seems, thanks to expert comedic visual trickery. Instead, he’s merely departing the town at the train station to make good with his life so that his sweetheart Mildred (Mildred Davis) can eventually join him and get married. But after a few months, the boy and his pal “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother) are past due on rent and pawning records for cash. Harold is nevertheless intent on pretending that he’s successful in the world, and writes daily to his true love, accompanied by gifts whenever possible.
When he’s accidentally detained on the City Towel Supply Corporation’s truck, he’s taken miles away from his job at the De Vore Department Store. Certain that he’ll be fired for being late, he swiftly boards a trolley car, then lunges onto a moving automobile before spying an ambulance – which he uses as rapid transportation by playing dead in the street. Still late to the store, he sneaks in under the guise of a mannequin, but must then thwart the negative scrutiny of Mr. Stubbs (Westcott B. Clarke), the stern, head floorwalker. His immediate troubles aren’t over, however; having successfully given Mildred the false impression of his wealth, Harold is in for a shock when the anxious woman heads to the big city for a surprise visit.
It all becomes a balancing act as the boy struggles to keep up the charade of a position of magnitude while actually slaving away in a lowly, menial role at the fabric counter. The case of mistaken identity is fortunately and comedically prolonged, with various forms of escalating hijinks hysterically compounding his already awkward predicament. And the pacing is perfectly speedy. The importance of impressing the girl and accumulating funds for a respectable union – along with policeman pranks that turn sour, swordfighting with old ladies, feisty pigeon dueling, the disposal of an annoying mouse, and slinking into the General Manager’s private office – are all components of a careful build to a grand climax. And it’s one so outstanding that it overshadows everything that came before it.
A stroke of luck arrives in the form of a new idea to attract crowds to the store, allowing for one of the most iconic of all silent film sequences to be born: when the “mystery man” scheduled to climb the Bolton Building as a publicity stunt is hindered by a vengeful cop (Noah Young), Harold substitutes the mount with the intention of only scaling one floor before switching places with his pal through a window. With an exhilaratingly riotous finale, he’s not only snookered into ascending a great height, but also obstructed by numerous, precarious obstacles. The series of daredevil gags conducted along the side of the towering skyscraper are likely some of the greatest ever accomplished on film up to that point (regardless of Lloyd performing all of his own stunts or the use of a miniature structure built on top of the building for the sake of exaggerating and faking shots of the street below), utilizing snappy editing, harrowing aerial photography, and clever acrobatic feats (scripted in part by Lloyd himself, with the aid of Hal Roach). Dangling from a clock face is easily the most renowned image in “Safety Last!” – and one of the preeminent visions of slapstick. It’s a thrilling accomplishment and a considerable picture, which helped Lloyd become a major player in early cinema.
– Mike Massie