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Safety Last

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

Harold Lloyd’s character is strainingly decent, and don’t you always really sense that Harold Lloyd himself was the same way? Look at how warmly, how sweetly he greets his policeman friend, or how he interacts with that cute Mildred Davis (whom he would soon marry, and remain with for more than 40 years). Evidence abounds that it’s all real, all really him. Harold Lloyd movies bespeak sweetness and decency, which is not an inconsiderable accomplishment.

In a parallel fashion, Lloyd’s comic construction is consistently, decently hard-working. As an actor he gave his all, and the same went for the writers he always had labouring on his behalf. They got results. Laughs, of appreciation and sometimes of pleasure, come fairly frequently in his pictures. That’s certainly true of Safety Last, which is one of the most celebrated and beloved of them all. The energetic and imaginative business at that fabric counter is a good example of how he works, and of the fact that his stuff quite often works.

Is that praise enough? He deserves it, and we love him. But if you’ll excuse my frankness, it seems to me in the end that the great Leo McCarey might have been right after all. Alas, Harold Lloyd is not really that funny! (See the McCarey interview in Peter Bogdanovich’s invaluable collection, Who the Devil Made It [1997].) From that jail business at the beginning, through the exhausting/annoying confusion in the general manager’s office, to the agonizingly distended climb-the-building climax, it’s all too much diligence and not enough inspiration.

(Disrespectful? Heretical? Fair enough. I got to this point after watching all of New Line Cinema’s extensive-to-massive 2005 dvd release of restored Lloyd films. The kids had great fun with them, all summer long. I just got increasingly film-grumpy. Lots of people disagree with me, and you might too. Watch the films and see what you think.)

If that last criticism is fair, then this next appreciation is much more important. Mercy, and admiration too, take us to a deeper matter. You hate to key on affliction, especially in light of how Lloyd refused to let himself be handicapped by it. But do you know the story? Think of that poor maimed hand of his, as you watch him blithely scramble up the side of that building. It’s preposterous enough to do something like this with both of your thumbs intact. I have a few problems with the sequence, and I’m not so fond of the film. But real life? It’s so moving! Reputation notwithstanding, Lloyd’s no comic genius. But isn’t decency so much more important in the end? Souls made great through love and adversity!