There was a time when Harold Lloyd was as famous as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Yet it’s not really a surprise that Lloyd’s profile as a comedic master has receded in recent decades: He was a good-natured everyman, far less flamboyant and perversely poetic than his iconic silent-era contemporaries. Even his signature horn-rimmed glasses lent an air of solid practicality.
Safety Last!, recently restored by Criterion in a lavish Blu-ray edition, is probably Lloyd’s best-known work and crowning achievement. Released at the peak of his powers in 1923, it features Lloyd as simply “the Boy,” a striver from the town of Great Bend who’s gone to the big city to live out the American Dream. He finds work as a lowly clerk at DeVore Department Store, where he attempts to earn enough money to send for his girl (Mildred Davis, who would become Lloyd’s real-life wife).
Watched today, one can’t help but notice various period details: two weeks’ rent is $14; downtown Los Angeles as a dusty city on the verge of much bigger things; elaborate hats that were ubiquitous. Even more curious is this bit of prescient corporate-speak from the Boy’s boss: “Something is wrong with our exploitation! We simply are not getting the publicity that our position in the commercial world calls for.”
Enter a publicity stunt in which the Boy scales the store’s towering front façade despite a variety of obstacles both amusing and perilous. The extended set piece is among the most memorable in all of silent cinema — and, as the late critic Andrew Sarris once incisively noted, “established for all time the spatial metaphor for an American’s rise to the top in the midst of a fear of falling.”
Criterion’s new edition includes a smorgasbord of useful special features, including three restored Lloyd shorts; an illuminating introduction by Lloyd’s granddaughter; and a 108-minute 1989 documentary called Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius.