Safety Last! is a film that I feel I’m giving too much credit to, and not enough, all at the same time. On one hand, this is one of the oldest films I’ve seen, and I enjoyed it more than I have most silents. From my biased modern standpoint, it seems that I should reward it more for that. In the end though, I was bored for several stretches, even if the film is effective for the most part. I’m not sure if I’m going too hard on it because it’s old, or going too easy on it because it’s old, but I’ll try to split the difference.
Lloyd (Harold Lloyd) moves into the big city, gets a job as a clerk in a department store, but he makes it out to be a bigger position than it is in his letters home. Flushed with her man’s success, Mildred (Mildred Davis) rushes to the city to surprise him. Lloyd continues his charade for Mildred at work, when he happens upon a chance to make some real money. The store is in need of a publicity gag, and inspired by his steelworker friend Bill’s (Bill Strother) climb up a building to evade a cop (Noah Young) that drew a crowd the day before, he proposes that Bill climb the store’s building. Management will pay him a thousand dollars if it succeeds, and he will be able to marry Mildred. The kicker is, Bill is still running from that same cop, so Lloyd may be stuck doing the dangerous stunt himself, without the training that Bill has.
First, it must be said, the film’s comedy is wonderful executed. The timing is perfect with every gag again and again. The thing is Lloyd’s sort of a one trick pony; all of the humor comes from him being unknowingly put upon. The only variations come when another character is unknowingly put upon. This can make the movie drag, especially towards the beginning. Way too much time is spent on his being late to work; it does little to move the story forward and I got pretty tired of seeing Lloyd take so many avoidable wrong turns. The same goes for Mildred’s visit to the department store. How many times does Lloyd have to fool her into thinking he’s senior management before she finally leaves? It goes on way longer than it needs to.
However, and this is a really big however, the comedy that has been more than adequately established at this point, works to the film’s advantage at the end. We finally get to Lloyd’s big climb, and the comedy turns into tension. Every time something around Lloyd goes wrong, we become more anxious for his life. We know Murphy’s law is in full effect for this film; anything that can go wrong for poor Lloyd definitely will. The stakes are a lot higher now, and get progressively higher with each floor Lloyd scales, so instead of being bored by everything single little thing that goes wrong for Lloyd, it becomes grating on the nerves. It’s long climb for him to the top, and it becomes longer, because you know that anything and everything is going to be an impediment for our put upon hero.
Comedy becomes a double edged sword in Safety Last!. Comedy as a genre is defined by audiences’ reactions to it; it’s supposed to make them laugh. Here though, it only does that for half the film. The perfectly executed gags are funny when they’re delaying a man’s arrival at work, but are nail-bitingly wearing when they’re immediately threatening a man’s life. As a genre exercise Safety Last! is something I haven’t seen before; I almost wonder if there’s more in it that I’m missing as well.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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