Dangling From A Clock For One's Life: Safety Last (1923)

When it comes to silent film actors/directors/and whatever other hat one had to put on, I am stand in the corner of Buster Keaton, although I am also completely aware of the cinematic magic that is Charlie Chaplin.  However, I had up until about a week ago never seen a Harold Lloyd film, but had always remembered seeing clips of him dangling from a clock on shows when I was younger.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to attend a screening quite similar to the one I blogged about last year, concerning Flesh and the Devil, in which a live organ accompaniment occurred whilst screening the film.  When I heard that this years would be Safety Last, I made sure I was in town to attend the film and the decision was certainly for the best.  While the overall construction of the film does not rival that of Buster Keaton, it is clear that Harold Lloyd takes the prize for the most dynamic and dangerous stunts, even if many of the tense moments are aided by some excellent cinematic illusions.  Furthermore, I have never, and I mean this sincerely, seen a crowd engage with a film with such liveliness and excitement as the mostly elderly viewers of this center piece of silent comedy.  It is not a particularly complex film, but it does possess the sparkle and magic of everything one expects when they talk about the magic of cinema, each of Lloyd's jokes and stunts top the previous one, so much so that one finds themselves exhausted at the films close, however, this worn out demeanor is more than welcomed as it is certainly an engaging film, made more so by the addition of live music and an ecstatic audience.

Safety Last, follows a young man, named, as should be no surprise, Harold Lloyd, as he leaves for the big city to make a name for himself and succeed financially.  He leaves behind his girlfriend, played rather wide-eyed by Mildred Davis, promising to propose to her once he has obtained financial grounding.  Renting an appartment with his Pal (Bill Strother) the two pursue the tough road to economic success, Harold working in a department store, while Pal appears to do factory work.  It becomes clear that Harold's job is not providing him with financial stability, especially considering that much of his money is spent on rent, however, through some pawning and slyly worded letters, Harold makes his girlfriend believe that he is quite successful in the city and desires to marry her in the very near future.  Taking this as a sign of his great successes Harold's girlfriend travels to the city to meet him and plan their marriage.  When Harold makes this discover, literally as she enters his place of employment, he begins putting on the facade that he is indeed doing extremely well and, in fact, manages the entire department store, something his girlfriend comes to believe true do to a series of lucky encounters and well-delivered stretches of the truth.  When the department store seeks a means to attract customers, Harold volunteers Pal to scale the building in a feat of strength and athleticism for a large sum of money to be split between the two, an amount that will allow Harold to truly get on his feet and marry his love.  However, when the day of the spectacle emerges it becomes evident that Pal is under surveillance by a diligent cop who prevents him from climbing the building, thus requiring Harold to take his place, for what he assumes to be only a few floors.  Yet through a series of follies and mishaps it is Harold who climbs the entire length of the building thus earning the money for himself, as well as winning over his girlfriend in new ways.  Harold has succeeded in the city, all be it, by some rather unusual means.

It is easy to dismiss a film like Safety Last as being purely spectacle, or as a series of daring stunts loosely connected by narrative elements.  To do so would, however, be an incredibly ignorant reading of a keen film, about self-advancement and the pursuing of the American Dream.  Sure the film has some rather problematic elements of racism and gender issues, but it was made in 1923, one must accept cultural issues differently before approaching the films themes.  With all this in mind, the film clearly critiques the trouble of making oneself successful with the burdens of capitalist structures, particularly the renting of property and the interferences of private property into one's ability to succeed.     Furthermore, the film clearly delineates between the bourgeois and the proletariat in the zany and roaringly hilarious fabric sale scene.  This all culminates into a visual metaphor of a man's climb to the top of success, this lengthy climax covers a large portion of the film and is certainly met with challenges, whether they be those of law, or those of absurdity, it is not simple for Harold to reach the top and it certainly requires an amount of aid and an even larger amount of luck.  Yet, as the film suggest, one can succeed in this climb, by of course trying not to look down, and if one does accidentally do so they should pursue their goals in a frantic and possessed manner, or in another sense destroy their preoccupation with time, because it will,  in this film very literally, slow you down.

Key Scene:  It should be no surprise that the climbing of the building takes precedence here.

Unfortunately, many of Harold Lloyd's films have been relegated to secondary thoughts on collections of silent slapstick, and Safety Last is certainly no exception.  One can hope for a bluray upgrade in the future, but until then renting one of the many DVD's containing his works will have to suffice.

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