Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)

Wonderful.  Comparing Harold Lloyd to Chaplin and Keaton is inevitable on my part, considering any critic or reviewer, or anyone period, who mentions Harold Lloyd, the other star of ‘20s slapstick cinema, feel obligated to compare him to his more famous counterparts.  Problem is, I’ve only seen one Keaton, “The General,” but from what I can surmise, Keaton’s shtick was his ability as an incredible athlete to manipulate his surroundings and everything in them, making a mess of things as smoothly and fluidly as possible, while Chaplin’s Tramp is all about odd mannerisms and being that lovable buffoon – a graceful clod, the finesse to Keaton’s strength.  Lloyd is both of these things, and he’s neither.  He certainly doesn’t stand out appearance-wise like Chaplin, instead taking on something resembling Keaton’s everyman persona, nor is he the impressive acrobat and athlete that Keaton is, despite certainly being physically able.  He’s just a normal-looking, suit-wearing, bespectacled and fairly handsome man who gets into insane situations.  If you saw him in the street, you wouldn’t bat an eyelash; you’d think he was just some businessman or something, which is probably where some of his charm comes from, that you can identify with this guy, feel like the extraordinary circumstances he gets in can actually happen since it’s happening to such a normal-looking guy, rather than with the outlandish-looking but more choreographed and physically-impressive Tramp.  If Keaton manipulated his environment, then Lloyd certainly gets manipulated BY his environment, which comes front and center in “Safety Last!” 

You know what kind of material you’re in for from the very first scene featuring a wonderful sight gag involving what appears to be prison bars and a hangman’s noose.  And the poor Boy, played by Lloyd, can’t catch a break as a country boy trying to get by as a lowly salesman at a department store in the big city, all while trying to fool his girl into thinking that he’s a bigwig.  He has to run the gauntlet of packed trolleys and heavy traffic and fire hydrants to get to work, lest he be late for the very first time, has to fend off a vicious mob of old ladies at the sales counter, pretends to be the store’s general manager when his girl shows up, with the real general manager within eye shot, and finally endures the film’s famous set piece, as he concocts a $1,000 publicity scheme in which his friend will scale a stories-high building, but through bizarre reasons only possible in the world of silent slapstick, must scale the edifice himself.  Through it all, Lloyd does almost nothing to stand out or distinguish himself as an athlete or physical artist – he just does his thing, lets all the bizarre goings-on around him come to him, so dare I say, Lloyd is the closest thing to a subtle slapstick star.  Sure he’s more than able physically – he has to be to climb that building (and whether or not any effects or stuntmen were used to simulate the Boy climbing to the top of that building, it was damn convincing), but he doesn’t show off either.  Those bumbling, in-way-over-his-head facial expressions, and the way he’s able to simulate difficulty with each step up that building, all while as an actor having to concentrate on not falling and putting on what amounts to a scripted physical performance while hanging on to a vertical wall, is really a lot more amazing than it appears in the final product when you think about it.  This whole movie, and especially the climb up that building, is an incredible feat of having things happen when they’re supposed to happen, and having Lloyd react when kids throw peanuts onto him, pigeons make a nest out of his hair, his friend struggles to pull him up via a rope with a ledge in the way, he gets an earful from various office workers and inhabitants of the building, has a mouse crawl up his pant let, and comes to rest with the top of his head mere centimeters from a spinning weathervane.  The ease with which this is all executed is nothing short of amazing.  Sure, you could argue that Lloyd doesn’t possess the raw physical prowess of Chaplin and Keaton, but then again, he kind of does, by making it look so easy and effortless that you barely take notice or ooh or ahh when he dizzily stumbles on the ledge of a tall building or situates himself between a moving trolley and a moving car, or wades his way through reams of wrapping paper to fight off shoppers. 

An artist like Chaplin used his body and physical gifts perfectly, but in a film like “Safety Last!”, this unassuming, good-looking guy with the sweet smile who seems like he actually has to break a sweat and work hard to do these things, combines with his surroundings to give us an ideal ‘normal man in extraordinary circumstances’ story.  If this was somewhat lacking in straight-up laughs, at least compared to the best of Chaplin (and rest assured, I certainly laughed plenty), at least admire “Safety Last!” as a marvel of complicated scripted events and physicality, especially for the normal-looking guy who has to pull it off, and with all the difficulties you’d expect the real world to throw at a real guy (with the exaggerated slapstick touch, of course).  You’ll believe that a man can climb a building.


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