Safety Last! (1923)

Directed by Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor

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Safety Last! has perhaps the most famous shot of the silent era, that of a man, Harold Lloyd, dangling from the hands of a clock fastened to the side of a building a dozen or so stories up from the ground.  That this famous shot doesn’t include Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton is somewhat fascinating, and that it comes from a film that seems more or less lost in the unknown, well it’s quite something.

It’s an incredibly entertaining silent comedy, with a character less defined by his own quirks, as something like the Tramp, and instead more of an every man.  He ventures to the big city to make it rich, or at least to make enough to tempt the woman he loves into coming with him.  She makes it clear she won’t stick with him unless he can prove himself, and so he comes up with various lies that suggest he’s doing quite well.

Then her mother frightens her when she says that a man doing that well may be picked up by a woman in the city, so her daughter better head out there and claim him for herself.  Even in love, the film suggests, everything is done out of fear and jealousy.

The film works simply because it’s so enjoyable and entertaining, in the same way much of silent comedy (and old cartoons) is.  But it also might have some undercurrent about what it takes to succeed, and what you have to risk, in business.  Lloyd literally climbs the corporate ladder, only in this case it’s the side of a building.

He does so as part of a plan to drum up publicity and business for the department store at which he works, under the promise that he’ll earn $1,000 for his troubles.  He plans to promote the business by splitting the profits with his acrobatic friend, but when his friend must continually evade a police officer, Lloyd must step in and climb the building himself.

Each floor, he thinks, will be the last before his friend steps in and takes his place.  Instead he climbs all the way to the top, reluctantly but deftly.  To sell the realism of what he’s doing, he climbed constructed building facades placed on the tops of taller and taller buildings, so that the distant background is indeed a real street, and he is indeed getting further away from the ground.

So Lloyd’s character, unnamed even though his paycheck reads “Harold Lloyd,” risks life and limb just to make a quick profit, so that he might follow up on the promises and lies he has fed his betrothed, about his own success.  It’s the type of wealth he thinks he needs to win her over, even as they are set to marry from the very beginning.  Maybe it’s something about insecurity or how fickle certain institutions, like marriage, can be.  I don’t know.

Or maybe it’s just comedy, stemming from one character’s misreading of a situation and subsequent actions taken based on that misreading.  What follows are a series of ruses to keep up appearances, and so much of this kind of comedy comes from a character making up for one mistake, so that in a sense he earns his predicament and we can enjoy the karma of his situation.  Or something like that.

Up Next: Generation Wealth (2018), Back to the Future (1985), Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

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