Film Review: Safety Last!

1923’s Safety Last!

I was doing research on skyscrapers for my previous post and came across the 1923 silent film starring Harold Lloyd, Safety Last! and decided to give it a whirl, especially because it’s in the public domain and available for free on YouTube:

I’ve always delighted in the Silent Film Era of Hollywood because it’s just great film-making making due with less (no dialogue), and it creates some of the best slapstick comedy in Hollywood history. That’s apparent in spades with this silent film.

Lloyd’s character, like a lot of people at the time, moved to New York City to make enough money to support his girlfriend, but making it in the city isn’t going too well. He’s making small money at the local department store. That gives us all kinds of fun gags in the city that would become reoccurring themes in comedy films and TV shows for decades to come, such as a man dressing as a woman, poking fun at the boss, bald jokes (like when Lloyd’s character uses a man’s bald head as a mirror to fix his own hair), and being afraid of the landlord when the rent is due (hilarious gag where Lloyd and his roommate and friend, Bill, pretend to be coat hangers). There’s also the premise itself, which is one of the origin stories in the 1990s sitcom King of Queens, where Lloyd’s character pretends to be well-off in the city when talking to his girlfriend and when she comes to the department store to see him, he pretends to be the general manager to keep the ruse going.

What a shot this is!

The comedy is hilarious and had me laughing. But wow, the technical work and stunts from Lloyd, particularly for 1923 obviously, is wild. There’s a great scene when Lloyd is trying to get back to the department store or else he’ll be fired for being late, and ends up taking an ambulance part way there. The technical shots through the windows of the ambulance as it races through the busy streets of New York City is downright thrilling and marvelous.

But, obviously, nothing is more marvelous than the final 20 minutes of the film where Lloyd, on a lark to make $1,000 from the actual department store general manager if he can bring people to the store, decides to have Bill climb the facade of the store. However, Bill got in trouble with the law from an earlier gag in the film, and now Lloyd has to do it. Like something out of a video game, with each level of the building, Bill tells Lloyd’s character he can’t switch yet, and also, there’s birds, netting, gun shots, dogs, rats, and the like interfering with Lloyd’s insane climb.

The shots of the crowd below, the wider shots of the city and the climb itself, and the overall stunt work is absolutely beautiful and bewildering and made my toes sweaty with anxiety. It’s nuts! And holds up extremely well nearly a century later as incredible film-making and stunt work. I would love to know the behind-the-scenes on how they shot it. Obviously, one of the most iconic scenes is Lloyd’s character hanging and dangling from the clock near the top of the building. But there’s an even crazier scene when he swings from the building by a rope. How?!

If you’re into silent films, this is a must-watch. I usually stick to my boy Charlie Chaplain, but I’m glad to venture out and I look forward to watching more of Harold Lloyd’s work. Incredible actor and stuntman. Very impressive film.


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