in Criterion Month

Safety Last! (1923)

Welcome to Criterion Month! It seems more than appropriate that our month long ode to auteur-fueled “art” movies would begin with the era of silent comedy, which arguably first produced the idea of the auteur. Now of course this term wouldn’t come into effect for another 30 years or so, but Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton could easily be seen as the first true artists to emerge in the early 20th century from a sleepy town in the California desert known as Hollywood, with a style and vision all their own.

The ghost of Chaplin and Keaton have always loomed large in Harold Lloyd’s legacy, as he’s been regarded as the “third genius” of the silent era, but typically there’s not much glory in a bronze medal. Also, Lloyd doesn’t quite have the auteur cred of Chaplin and Keaton, since he didn’t direct any of his features, and mostly worked under the factory-like system put in place by producer Hal Roach. Also, there’s just the fact that for a lot of years Lloyd’s films weren’t easily available, since while Lloyd was still alive he was very protective of his work. But of course, that’s what makes Criterion so special – the way they take overlooked or forgotten gems, and give them the deluxe treatment.

It seems a little pointless to explain the plot of Safety Last!, since it really just is a series of wacky situations, in which the mildly mannered Lloyd (also playing a character named “Harold Lloyd”) is trying to get ahead, but ends up fucking himself instead. But basically, it’s all about impressing a girl, as the film begins with Lloyd heading off to the big city with the intent of making it big, so that he’ll finally have enough money to marry his sweetheart. He eventually gets a job at a department store, where he’s not entirely equipped to handle the hustle and bustle of 1920s dames and their unwieldy fashion needs.

Then when his girlfriend comes to town, he keeps trying to play off that’s he’s become more successful than he actually is, which eventually leads to him trying to impress his manager, who says he’ll pay $1000 dollars (which is $14,000 adjusted for inflation) for any stunt that will bring attention to the store. Which then of course leads Lloyd to perform his death-defying climb towards a giant mechanical clock that has become synonymous with not only this film, but with Lloyd’s career as a whole.

I suppose the biggest compliment I can give this movie is that it’s almost 100 years old and it made me laugh. A lot, in fact. It comes as no coincidence to me that the film’s exclamation-marked title feels evocative of the Zucker Brothers. Since Safety Last! certainly has that breakneck feel of berating you with gag after impeccable gag. Fortunately, this never feels tiring, since there’s nothing grating or obnoxious about Lloyd’s style of physical comedy. He certainly comes off as a go-getter, just trying to get ahead in the flapper era, but also has a kind of mild-mannered quality that makes you sympathathise with how unprepared he is for every shenanigan he gets himself caught up in.

And other than being just a great silent comedy with plenty of impressive stunts and physical gags, it looks great. It seems like a common misconception is that the quality of silent era film looks too grainy or archaic to enjoy, but a film like this is a reminder that if a film from the 1920s has been kept in decent shape, and is given the restoration care that Criterion gives to all of its films, it really can have the power to transport you back to a time and place before your grandparents were born. Granted, the world of Safety Last! is obviously a heightened, irreverent kind of reality, but it certainly exemplifies cinema’s ability to carry you back to the past, but while also making you laugh.