(Given the date of this post coinciding with Shabbos, I’ve obviously pre-scheduled it. I never post in real time on Shabbos.)
Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid are hosting the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” blogathon from 5–7 December, wherein participants post about potential gateway films to entice someone unfamiliar with classics. By the parameters of this blogfest, classic means anything made in or before 1965.
One of these gateway films is Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923)
Harold Lloyd (20 April 1893–8 March 1971) was the third genius of the silent cinema, but, until relatively recently, his films weren’t widely available. Baruch Hashem (Thank God), all his major films are now on DVD. We’re so lucky so many survived, when silents have such an abysmal survival rate. Sadly, most of his earlier Lonesome Luke shorts were lost in a 1943 fire, but the percent of his surviving films is still excellent.
On a personal level, Harold is not only one of my favorite comedians, but also one of my inspirations. Most silent fans know the story of how he almost died when a prop bomb went off in his hand, near his face, but the story of his recovery and determination to get even better at his craft especially means a lot to me because I’m also a burn survivor. Because of that near-fatal accident, Harold had to learn a new handedness, and it makes me so happy to see him doing things left-handed. Whether you’re a lefty by birth or accident, you’re part of my family.
On to the actual film review!
The film opens with an awesome sight gag which I won’t spoil the details of. Harold opened several of his films with such sight gags, giving the impression of something much different from what we expected. During this first scene, he heads off to the big city to make good, and his girlfriend Mildred (his real-life future wife, Mildred Davis) promises to join him when he’s made a name.
In the big city, Harold rooms with Limpy Bill (Bill Strother), who recently broke his left leg in real life. They live hand to mouth and have trouble paying rent on time, though Harold paints a much different picture of his finances in his letters to Mildred and buys her gifts far beyond his means.
The only real dated scene is the Jewish pawnbroker shop. I know this was a stock stereotype and not intended to be offensive, but it does make me a bit uncomfortable. (They’re also working on Shabbos!) Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t become much better at creating accurate, well-rounded Jewish characters and storylines over all these decades, but that’s the subject for another post!
Harold always comes to work super-early, but one morning, he gets stuck in a towel truck by the employees’ entrance and thus is completely rerouted. He faces obstacles including an overflowing streetcar and a would-be chauffeur who gets a parking ticket. The way Harold finally gets to work and cheats the time clock is so ingenious, but again, I won’t spoil anything.
We discover he’s a fabric salesman in the DeVore Department Store, on the ground floor of a 12-story building. We also discover, via a pay stub and misconduct ticket, that his character’s full name is one and the same as his. He always played a Harold, but he used another surname in all his other films.
During the work scenes, Harold writes and uses scissors with his left hand several times. This makes me so happy and excited, and I can only imagine how proud the lefties in the audience were. This was a time when many lefties were shamed, bullied, and forcibly switched from their natural inclination, yet here was a huge star using his left hand for all to see.
After work ends, Harold runs into his old buddy Jim, who’s also moved to the big city and become a cop. They horse around a bit, and then Harold tells Bill he’s got such pull with the cops he can get away with anything. Unfortunately, the cop they play their prank on turns out to be a different cop (Noah Young), and Bill is the one caught and blamed. To escape, Bill scales the wall of a nearby building. This sets the stage for the film’s famous dramatic climax.
Mildred’s mother suggests she join Harold in the big city, and Mildred’s unexpected arrival forces Harold into the charade of having a much more important position. He’s eventually roped into impersonating the general manager, and while he’s thinking up a ruse to get back into the office to retrieve Mildred’s purse, he overhears the general manager saying he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can attract a huge crowd.
Harold suggests a mystery man climb the building, which was a huge crowd draw in the Twenties. People loved watching daredevil stunts like flagpole sitting, building climbing, and aerial shows. Unfortunately, the cop is on the prowl at the same time Bill is set to climb the building, and thanks to a drunk (Earl Mohan) showing him the newspaper story, the cop immediately realizes this faceless mystery man is one and the same as the guy who pushed him. Keep in mind, this is pre-Miranda Rights!
Bill compels Harold into starting to climb in his place, and at the second story, Bill will put on his coat and hat so people will believe Harold’s still the one climbing. However, the cop is hot on Bill’s heels, and Harold is compelled into climbing just one more floor every time. Along the way, he encounters near-disasters including pigeons, hot coffee, a plank, a flagpole, a tennis net, a rope, and, of course, that famous clock.
Over 90 years later, this is still a thrilling sequence. There were several different façades to make it look like the same building getting higher and higher, but he was never that far off the ground. Footage of Bill is used in the long shots. However, had Harold fallen to the right instead of straight down, he would’ve fallen to his death.
Besides the awesome thrill sequence, and overlooking the dated but essentially harmless stereotype of the Jewish pawnbroker, this is just such a perfect, fun, charming film, on all possible levels. This was all done without CGI, including some rather advanced special effects like Harold using a bald head as a mirror and watching each item of a businessman’s lunch gradually disappearing as he buys a half-off lavaliere for Mildred. Knowing they were a couple in real life makes their scenes together even sweeter.
Harold’s films have been called less timeless than Keaton and Chaplin’s, since they’re such time capsules of the Twenties. However, that’s a reason why I love them. It’s fun to see life as it was, like department stores with soda fountains, old-fashioned streetcars, Brass Age cars, vintage coins, the price of living, and steam locomotives.