Of the Big Three greatest silent movie comedians, the hapless, bespectacled Harold Lloyd often seems to take a back seat to poignant Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp and acrobatic Buster Keaton’s Great Stone Face. But Lloyd in his day was the biggest box-office star of the trio and was the genius behind one of the most indelible, hair-raising images in the history of silent comedy.
It occurred in “Safety Last!” the classic 1923 film that is now getting the royal Criterion Collection Blu-ray treatment. The 70-minute feature has Lloyd in his signature trim suit and round horn-rimmed spectacles playing a country boy come to the Los Angeles to “make good” so he can marry his lovely girlfriend (Mildred Davis) back home.
Taking a job as a clerk at the De Vore Department Store, the Boy, as he’s called, struggles early on but then cooks up a wild publicity stunt to make some quick cash and impress his bosses and his girl. It involves the Boy’s nimble buddy (Bill Strother) playing a “human fly” and scaling the side of the 12-story department store building in downtown L.A. But through a witty series of contrivances, the Boy ends up on the precipice himself and must contend with pesky pigeons, gawking street crowds and even a badminton net as he climbs his way to the building’s clock tower.
That’s the meticulously paced and precisely staged scenario that takes up the second half of the movie and results in that famous shot of Lloyd dangling precariously from the giant clock face, holding on for dear life to the minute hand high above the bustling street below. In this era of digital stunts, where the visually impossible is easily achieved via CGI, it’s still amazing to watch this sequence that employed old-school trickery of the eye, and in which Lloyd himself navigated the daring stunt work, to pull off a truly palm-sweating exploit. It’s an elegant and fantastic comedic feat that easily stands up to any movie magic conjured up by modern-day computers.
The Criterion Blu-ray boxed set comes with a wealth of extras that include, in addition to the scrubbed-clean version of the feature, illuminating audio commentaries from critic Leonard Maltin and Lloyd archivist Richard Correll; three newly restored early Lloyd shorts – “Take a Chance,” “Young Mr. Jazz” and “His Royal Shyness” – accompanied by Correll’s commentary; a two-part, 108-minute documentary from the “American Masters” series examining Lloyd’s life and career; two featurettes essaying Lloyd’s pioneering work in stunts and visual effects and on his work with composer Carl Davis, who scored “Safety Last!” and many other Lloyd films, plus a full-color booklet featuring an analytical essay on Lloyd’s work by historian and film writer Ed Park.
- Dennis King