Nail-biting Laughter: My Blu-ray review of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!

Even Alfred Hitchcock never mastered that delicate balance between comedy and suspense as perfectly as silent comedian Harold Lloyd. Learning his craft carefully and consciously, he discovered that scaring the audience put them in an emotional pressure cooker, intensifying their reaction to a good gag. When the two effects were mixed expertly, by someone who understood the precise timing needed, the result was explosive, nail-biting laughter.

Many consider Safety Last Harold Lloyd’s masterpiece. It’s certainly his best-remembered work. And the sight of Lloyd, hanging from the minute hand of a clock far above a busy city street, is one of the strongest, most memorable images in the history of cinema.

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Safety Last isn’t my favorite Lloyd. That would be Kid Brother, with The Freshman a close second. Safety Last comes in a comfortable third. The first two thirds of the feature make an excellent piece of comic work, with more than enough laughs for a comedy twice as long. It’s not Lloyd at his best, but still quite special. But the final third, where Harold climbs a skyscraper, stands amongst the greatest comic sequences in the history of film.

(Harold Lloyd did not direct any of his films, but most historians consider him the auteur. The producer as well as the star, his style is clearly visible no matter who was officially calling the shots.)

Here, Lloyd plays a small-town boy who goes to the big city to find his fortune. But all he can get is a low-pay, soul-crushing retail job in a huge department store. This is the sort of place where the slightest dress-code infraction sends you down to the General Manager’s office. On the second offence, you’re fired.

But Harold (his characters are always named "Harold") isn’t being entirely honest about his job. In letters to his girl back home, he brags about his high position and higher salary. He spends a good portion of his meager means sending her gifts with money that should be going to the rent.

That setup provides for a lot of imagegags. Harold hiding from the snobbish and tyrannical floor manager. Harold struggling with crazed women in a sale. Harold and his best friend and roommate hiding from the landlady. And, of course, when the girlfriend turns up, Harold pretending to be the General Manager who almost fired him a few minutes earlier.

But the movie’s called Safely Last, not The Big Store. In the final 25 minutes, the plot conspires to force Harold to climb a 12-story building. As you see him clinging for dear life, menaced by pigeons, a mouse, and a volleyball net, you cringe and laugh at the same time, with each reaction doubling the effect of the last one.

The complete lack of special effects makes this scene far more effective than it could be today. That’s really Lloyd hanging onto that clock, and that’s really a street far below him. Of course, it’s not really Lloyd in the long shots, and the camera angles were designed to exaggerate the danger and hide the safety platform. But he was still in danger, and you feel that as you watch.

Like a lot of films from this period, Safety Last contains some uncomfortably racist humor. More unusual for a Hollywood film of that time, it makes fun of Jews as well as blacks. You just have to grit your teeth and sit through it.

Released in 1923, Safety Last was a huge commercial success upon its release. It deserved it, and deserves to be seen again.

First Impression

imageCriterion does its usual great job on the Blu-ray. The slightly thicker-than-usual clear plastic box contains the single disc, plus a booklet dominated by an interesting essay by Ed Park. The disc itself goes right to the menus, without annoying advertising.

Also, as all Criterion Blu-rays, it has a timeline and bookmarking. The next time you insert the disc, you’ll be asked if you want to start where you left off.

How Does It Look?

The image quality is a bit disappointing for a Criterion release. It occasionally looks faded and soft, with some scratches and other wear and tear. Obviously, the problems lie in the source material, and not in transfer supervisor Maria Palazzola’s work.

But budgetary issues may have made it worse. The nitrate source print was scanned at only 2K. You really need a 4K scan to get the best out of 35mm film, even if it’s to be shown on a 2K medium like Blu-ray.

How Does It Sound?

Criterion provides two musical accompaniments, each by a master of the medium. And both in uncompressed PCM.

The full orchestra score was composed and conduced by Carl Davis in 1989, and presented in the original two-track stereo mix. I love Davis’ work (see Napoleon at the Paramount: An Incredible Day at the Movies), and this score lived up to my expectations. As befits the urban 1920s setting, the music is upbeat and jazzy, and always matches and enhances the onscreen scene.

When I was falling in love with silent films in LA in the early 1970s, Gaylord Carter was an important part of the scene. In fact, my first true silent movie experience was Kid Brother, with Carter at the organ. Carter, a friend of Lloyd’s who died in in 2000, improvised this score at a private screening "sometime around 1969." I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet. I’m saving it for the right time.

And the Extras?

Lots of them.

  • Commentary by Leonard Maltin and archivist Richard Correll. The two historians recorded this together–it’s not one of those spliced-together commentaries., It contains some good discussions about Lloyd and the filming, but it also has some of those useless "Now he’s walking down the street" explanations.
  • Suzzanne Lloyd introduction. 17 minutes. Lloyd’s granddaughter affectionately discusses his career, his family, and film preservation. She also tells us that Lloyd’s favorite of his films was The Kid Brother. Good taste.
  • Short films. Total of 43 minutes–86 with the commentaries. Three Lloyd shorts from before his leap into features: "Take a Chance," "Young Mr. Jazz," and "His Royal Slyness." All have brassy, uncredited musical accompaniment and optional commentary. All three are amusing, none of they are great.
  • Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius: 108 minutes. I saw and liked this 1989 Kevin Brownlow documentary when it was new. I haven’t yet had a chance to see it again on this disc, but am looking forward to doing so.
  • Locations and Effects: 21 minutes. This new documentary covers the film’s locations and how the dangerous stunts were shot. Those aren’t two separate subjects; the locations were part of the illusion.
  • Carl Davis: Scoring for Harold: 24 minutes. The maestro talks mostly about the decisions he made while scoring Safety Last. But he also covers other Lloyd movies he’s scored, and the differences between scoring a silent film and a new movie with a living director.

The Safety Last! Blu-ray comes out on Tuesday, June 18. However, Bay Area folks will have an even better way to enjoy it in July, when it closes the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.