The Rear-View Mirror: Safety Last! (1923)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Everyone knows Charlie Chaplin. To a lesser extent perhaps, Buster Keaton too. But the third giant in this comedy trifecta, Harold Lloyd, is not as well known nowadays, although he made more films than the two of them combined. This may be because of distribution issues (Lloyd, in his later days, would only allow screenings of his films on special occasions). But perhaps even more so because the need-to-succeed everyman of his ’20s films was felt to be old-fashioned.

Orson Welles blamed snobbery: “The intellectuals don’t like the Harold Lloyd character—that middle-class, middle-American, all-American college boy. There’s no obvious poetry to it.” And it is true that the “aw shucks” ingenuousness in the films can be misconstrued as glib. His forays into the talkies didn’t do him any favours either, especially during the depression. Though they were inventive, they lack the magic of his silents. Lloyd in his heyday had none of the alien grace of Chaplin’s transcendent tramp. He was more relatable. And so it might seem as if his biggest hits were stuck firmly in his own time. However, in 1962, a compilation of his films was shown at Cannes, to great acclaim. And when the films were screened for college audiences long after their release, they loved them. Lloyd said they understood every single gag in them, no matter how subtle. Welles is right: these films are comedic architecture and as artful today as they were then. The filming is so clever and the gags so intricate that they remain a joy to watch. In his own time, even Old Stoneface allowed himself to be influenced by them.

Lloyd liked to play up the Tom Sawyer-esque nature of his youth. However much this story may be embellished and played up in his films, his is truly a rags to riches story. From an itinerant background in Nebraska, he made his way to Los Angeles where he met Hal Roach. From there, he moved up to Pathé, and was a huge hit with his Lonesome Luke character. A Chaplin-type character, though less stylish and certainly not as good, he was hugely successful nonetheless. But Lloyd felt he had gone as far as he could with Lonesome Luke soon enough. In 1917 he started developing a new character. The “glass” character, so named because of, well, the glasses. “Glasses give you an academic appearance, of a studious man. But you don’t necessarily have to be that. You can belie that appearance,” Lloyd has said. More of an everyman, with all the versatility that suggests: and film history was made.

Even if you have never seen Safety Last! from beginning to end, still, you will almost certainly recognise the iconic image below:

The idea that there is no poetry to Lloyd’s comedy is belied by the very first scene in Safety Last! The protagonist, “The Boy”, even called “Harold Lloyd” later in the film, is shown behind bars, with what looks like a gallows in the background. A visiting priest shakes the hand of the downcast Lloyd, his fiancee and his mother join him, visibly upset. They walk away, their backs to us, only to re-enter… a train station. The bars are simply the entrance to the platform, the noose just a trackside pickup hoop. This is where the young man leaves all he has ever known, to go out into the world and seek his fortune. And it is likened, not to a grand adventure, but to a death sentence. Take that, snooterati. Of course, the big city doesn’t bring the fortunes the young man is hoping for. As a beleaguered sales-clerk he suffers indignity after indignity, with very little to show for it. His best friend and roommate, an inveterate building-climber, has a low-wage gig as a builder. Together they can’t even make rent. However, as the movie-convention dictates, he pretends to be a huge success to the homefront. (Learn to manage expectations Harold!) Though it does lag in the middle, the first part features iconic imagery we can all relate to as a modern audience. The chaos of a daily commute in public transport:

and the indignities suffered by everyone who has ever had to hold down a job in the customer service industry.

By the half-way point Harold has an idea. His boss wants publicity, and Harold casts his best mate as a “human fly” (a big rage in the 20’s), the “mystery man” who can scale a tall building. This sets up the final extravaganza. The friend has a spot of trouble with the law, and Harold – of course – ends up scaling the building himself. This is the best part of the film and, in case you have never seen it in its entirety: I won’t spoil it for you. Lloyd does most of his own stunts, and the photography is absolutely spectacular. The stunts are all the more impressive as Lloyd lost his forefinger and thumb in an accident in 1919 – he wears a prosthetic glove – and so has to climb without the full use of his hands.

Last year, in 2019, Safety Last! entered the public domain. And though much can be said for getting the lavish polished edition, with all the detail, the beautiful revised score and all the specials: you can also check it out for free. So, go. Give it a try. See only the climactic last act, if you must (it starts about 50 minutes in). Enjoy one of the most influential, most loved, most prolific, most unfairly forgotten comic geniuses of the past century.

As always, this article owes a huge debt to its sources: the 1980 documentary series Hollywood, specifically episode 8, Comedy is a Serious Business, and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, by Gill and Brownlow, as a part of the American Masters series by PBS, which is also available on the Criterion Blu-Ray edition of Safety Last!

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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