In addition to my usual indie discoveries, I’m going to start tackling some classics here. Not that they need me to bring attention to them, but when a film endures this long, it’s usually because there’s a lot to talk about. I tried to go see a Harold Lloyd movie at the Film Forum a few years ago but was stymied because, I shit you not, the theater caught on fire about twenty minutes in and had to be evacuated. So Safety Last! was my maiden voyage with Mr. Lloyd, and what a treat it turned out to be. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, this is a perfect place to start.
Lloyd plays The Boy, a country bumpkin who moves to Los Angeles to make it big so he can afford to marry The Girl (Mildred Davis, whom Lloyd married when filming wrapped). The Boy gets an entry-level job at a department store and exaggerates his financial success in his letters home to his Girl, sending her jewelry that’s cheap but still way out of his price range and bragging about all his responsibilities at work. His mother worries about her son being alone in the big city with so much money, so the Girl goes to surprise him. The Boy is delighted to see her but has to think on his feet to keep her from finding out that he’s just a fabric counter clerk (talk about a job that’s gone the way of the buffalo). He overhears his boss saying he’d pay a thousand dollars to anyone who anyone with an original idea for getting customers into his store, so the Boy enlists the help of his friend Limpy Bill (Bill Strother, a real-life “human fly”) to climb the face of the twelve-story department store building. But things don’t quite go according to plan, and The Boy has to climb the building himself, to his chagrin and terror.
One of the things that makes “thrill comedies” like Safety Last! so enduring is the immaculate practical effects used to achieve shots like the ones of Lloyd scaling the building. All effects were “in-camera;” that is, they used tricks of perspective and framing but no modification of the film itself. Lloyd and many other filmmakers used the erstwhile Hill Street Bridge in downtown LA to stage shots that were supposed to take place at a great height; by building sets on top of the bridge and then framing the shot so that the viewer only sees the cars driving by from a distance, they could convincingly create the illusion of their characters being suspended in space. Lloyd also built skyscraper facades on top of existing buildings and scaled those; even with a mattress placed below him, it was still incredibly dangerous, made even more so because Lloyd had lost his right thumb and one of his fingers in an accident and had to do all his climbing stunts with a prosthetic glove.
Lloyd was clearly an innovator when it came to effects, but what’s less immediately obvious is his contributions to the fundamental tenets of the romantic comedy. Most of us see our first slapstick comedy before we can talk, so those tropes are as familiar as an old pair of shoes. But romantic comedies didn’t really exist before Lloyd. This is not to say that he created the genre singlehandedly, but it’s hard to overstate his impact on it. His character, the so-called Glasses character, is handsome and dashing but still capable of slapstick humor. He depended on sight gags as much as Chaplin and Keaton, but his film persona is more assured and heroic than Chaplin’s Little Tramp and more affable and relatable than Keaton’s deadpan outsider. Lloyd also helped instill the idea of scary situations being inherently humorous. Part of the dramatic tension of his nail-biting climb up the side of the building comes from the fact that he’s the only one who knows how unqualified he is for the task and from how hard he works to hide his terror. The spectators know he’s in danger—it would be hard to miss—but they have no idea how much courage his stunt requires.
There’s something uniquely modern about Lloyd’s “everyman” persona—he’s wholly relatable. His story is a romance in the sense that all the action is motivated by his love for the Girl, but their relationship itself is never in jeopardy. Safety Last! is exuberant and breathtaking, a beautiful reminder of the good things humans are capable of making and the generous spirits we’re capable of being.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.