This is the story of a boy (Harold Lloyd) and a girl (Mildred Davis) who were in love and wanted to get married but did not have the resources to pay for them settling down together. Therefore one day the boy decided he had to take a trip to the big city where he planned to get a job, rise to the top of his profession and earn a fortune that would provide for them both ever after. Easier said than done, you would have thought, but they were a naïve couple and truly believed the boy could succeed, yet on his arrival in the city he found times harder than he had anticipated: could he even get a job to pay his rent, never mind become a powerful businessman?
Obviously drastic measures need to be taken, and they certainly got drastic in Safety Last! which not only was Lloyd's most celebrated movie, but contains the one image from the silent era guaranteed to conjure up and encapsulate everything that saw audiences flocking to watch them. Though this was only an hour and a quarter long, you had to wait till the final twenty minutes for that image, and it was worth watching the rest of the comedy as well. Nevertheless, the brilliance of that extended finale was difficult to beat, and it all boiled down to one gag: Harold Lloyd halfway up a tall building, hanging onto a clock face for dear life as the world goes by below him.
This summed up almost everything about what we expect from silent movies, silent comedy especially: the wacky, slapstick sense of humour and the daredevil stunts that everyone from Buster Keaton to Douglas Fairbanks was indulging in, throwing caution to the wind as well as any form of health and safety regulations. Lloyd had already found out to his cost that carelessness on a movie set, especially the kind he made, could be dangerous after he lost a couple of fingers in a prop bomb accident, but he was such a determined soul that even that was not going to hold him back. Imagine it: hanging from that clock above the street so far below, and only with eight fingers.
Of course, there was a degree of trickery involved. Lloyd was happy to use stunt doubles for the more perilous material, though he did perform them whenever he felt he could achieve them, and he did do most of his onscreen activity himself, no matter that his signature glasses could be placed on any stuntman and fool the audiences of the day (even now). And he was not climbing in the "human fly" sequence without a safety net, there was a platform underneath him to catch him should he fall - he did not, which is just as well because testing the platform merely demonstrated a falling object could simply bounce off to the ground all those storeys down.
It was testament to Lloyd that his faith in his team and his jokes still managed to be enormously exciting a century later, never mind that moviegoers of the day were said to be fainting in the aisles with terror. Wasn't this supposed to be a comedy? For the first forty-five minutes or so, it delivered the silent humour you expected, the cute romance stuff, the physical fun, a bit of misunderstandings as the boy (Lloyd was reluctant to name his heroes, preferring just to call him "The Glasses Character") ties himself in knots pretending to the girl that he is flourishing when actually he has a job as a department store clerk. Then seeing his friend (actual human fly Bill Strother) make an ascent on a building to avoid a cop and has a brainwave: his pal will draw crowds to the store.
By climbing it, that is, and they will share the $1000 reward from the manager, which will enable the boy to earn enough to get married to his sweetheart (and the star did indeed marry Davis, staying together till her death in 1969). But on the day, the angry cop shows up and Lloyd has to perform the stunt himself. It couldn't be purer as a concept, and that was its genius, no, the build-up isn't the funniest silent comedy you'll see, but it does charm, yet once the climb begins there's still little more riveting as entertainment as obstacles were invented for every floor: pigeons, a mouse, a barking dog, and more incredible spectacles (as opposed to the leading man's horn-rimmed spectacles). Lloyd may have been overshadowed by Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in the public awareness since, but neither of them had that image, that wonderful visual of the man struggling comically against ridiculous odds, hanging from the clockface, to guarantee them immortality as long as people return to the early years of cinema.
[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with these superb features:
New, restored 2K digital film transfer
Musical score by composer Carl Davis from 1989, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo on the Blu-ray edition
Alternate score by organist Gaylord Carter from the late 1960s, presented in uncompressed monaural on the Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary featuring film critic Leonard Maltin and director and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll
Introduction by Suzanne Lloyd, Lloyd's granddaughter and the president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment
Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, a 108-minute documentary from 1989
Three newly restored Lloyd shorts: Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919), and His Royal Slyness (1920), with commentary by Correll and film writer John Bengtson
Locations and Effects, a new documentary featuring Bengtson and visual-effects expert Craig Barron
New interview with Davis
PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Ed Park.]