Often seen as the third of the three silent film comedy icons, Harold Lloyd is far less known than either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Though the public may not be as aware of his talents, movie fans have long held Lloyd in the same esteem as his contemporaries. Safety Last is easily the most famous of his movies, featuring perhaps his only truly iconic moment.
Safety Last follows Harold Lloyd as… Harold Lloyd, a small-town man who’s moved to the big city to make something of himself and earn enough to support his fiancée, Mildred. Despite writing to Mildred with news of his success, we find Harold working on the haberdashery counter at a department store.
Of course, Mildred soon wants to visit and Harold’s forced to fake his role as manager of the store in a series of comic misunderstandings and close calls. Realising he needs to find a break, Harold overhears his boss saying that he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can bring a crowd of new customers to the store. Sensing an opportunity to set up his dream life, Harold ends up scaling the outside of the 12-story building, culminating with his famous stunt hanging from the hands of a large clock.
It’s a breezy watch at around 75 minutes, a perfect balance between slapstick hijinks, character beats and tension building stunts. Lloyd manages to blend the pathos of Chaplin with the break-neck pratfalls of Keaton, without ever feeling like a parody of either.
He’s the most “leading man” looking of the three, and the most at home romancing a small-town girl and charming his way from moment to moment. It’s to Lloyd’s huge credit that he stands on his own amongst two giants of the silent age, crafting a unique path to success and starring in 18 feature films overall.
The film’s most famous moment, Lloyd dangling from the hands of a clock many stories up the side of a building, has long outlived its release in 1923. It’s been referenced in works as diverse as Back to the Future, Hugo and Dad’s Army. It’s an image that’s become synonymous with Lloyd himself, like Chaplin dancing with cutlery or Keaton surviving a falling building.
There’s more than impressive stunt work on display in Safety Last, with plenty of visual trickery and gags throughout. Perhaps the best of these is the film’s opening, where a noose seemingly hanging in a jail cell is revealed to be a railway postal hook the other side of a barred fence.
Moments like these elevate the film to something of an early masterpiece, making full use of every scene and moment on screen. Lloyd brings it all together with his taste for danger, charming persona and knack for physical comedy. Safety Last is an essential film for anyone interested in knockabout comedy, silent film and the works of the first movie stars.