Review: Safety Last

On a rainy, cold, overcast Saturday, I caught my first Harold Lloyd movie at Film Forum's Harold Lloyd retrospective. Before the movie, another Harold Lloyd short, Get Out and Get Under, screened.

Safety Last, bits of which are available on this DVD (a DVD of the movie is not available, but you can log your interest for one here at Amazon), is Lloyd's most famous movie, and the shot of Lloyd dangling from the hands of a clock several stories up on the side of a city building is the most iconic image of his career. Even without having seen the movie before, the shot was familiar to me through references in other movies such as Jackie Chan's Project A.
Lloyd's signature character, who appears in Safety Last, is a clever rascal who always manages to stay ahead of the police, oppressive bosses, and the other social forces that would spoil his efforts to win the girl and get ahead. Safety Last is the American Dream as lived by Lloyd's small town boy looking to make it big in the big city. He hopes to earn enough money to bring his girl to live with him. But when we finally meet up with Lloyd in town he's a sales clerk at a fabric store, hiding from his landlord whenever she comes for the rent by crawling up inside his jacket that hangs on a hook inside his front door.
A series of events lead to the movie's climax, when Lloyd has to scale the side of a city office building in a literal metaphor for climbing the social ladder. It was his fearless friend who was to perform the stunt, but the moral here is picking oneself up by one's bootstraps, so fate conspires to trap Lloyd into performing the stunt. If he can reach the top, he'll earn a large promotional bonus from his manager and be able to purchase a house for his girl, who thinks he's actually the manager.
Lloyd's face is not as memorable as that of Keaton and Chaplin. Even now I struggle to picture the details of his visage; all I remember are his famous round horn-rimmed spectacles, a frame without lenses. And his physical pratfalls feel too rehearsed and polished. But these are minor nits. The stunts are set up and filmed with such precision that my palms were sweating as Lloyd bumbled his way up the side of the building, even though I knew Lloyd was simpling climbing an extension of a building built on top of a real building. And these Lloyd movies make great family movies. A row of young children behind me laughed with delight the whole time, the physical humor akin that of a Jim Carrey today, though not quite as manic.