Harold Lloyd isn’t quite the household name the other silent clowns of his generation are – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. But doggedly, cheerfully, he endures, and in some ways he’s still the most modern of the lot.
It’s a strange feeling watching a movie made nearly a century ago and knowing that everyone in it and who worked on it is long dead. But 1923’s Safety Last, even at 97 years old, still speaks to today’s world with its singular image, of a man frantically trying to keep his balance in a changing world.
That’s not to say Harold Lloyd was quite the genius Chaplin or Keaton were – but at his best, his work comes mighty close. I adored Chaplin and Keaton from the moment I first discovered “the silent clowns”, but Harold Lloyd was almost forgotten after his death in 1971. It’s mainly thanks to that remarkable imagery from Safety Last that he hasn’t become as obscure as some of his peers.
Keaton was famed for his stone-faced expression, and Chaplin for his childlike innocence. Lloyd started out as a second-rate Chaplin imitator, but his character “Glasses” is how he broke through into legend. Lloyd smiled more, a genial wide Midwestern-type grin, and Glasses was just an ordinary guy, a striver in the roaring ‘20s trying to make it big, gutsy yet appealingly insecure. He seems a tad more human. And indeed, through the 1920s Lloyd was one of the world’s biggest box office stars.
The Criterion Collection has done a magnificent job restoring Lloyd’s ouevre the last few years with sweeping special editions of Speedy, The Kid Brother, The Freshman and of course, Safety Last, arguably his masterpiece and definitely the film he’s most remembered for.
Like most silent comedies, Safety is thin on plot and long on pratfalls. Harold is a country boy who moves to the big city and gets a lowly job in a department store, determined to impress his country girlfriend. When she comes to town, he ends up in an escalating series of hijinks culminating in a still-astonishing climb up the department store skyscraper. There’s something captivating about Harold’s struggle – he doesn’t MEAN to climb the whole thing, you see – and yet he battles on, against the odds. Like Chaplin and Keaton, he’s the little guy – and everybody loves an underdog.
Suspended in mid-air, clutching a clock’s hands to keep from falling to his death, the eternally striving Harold Lloyd feels like a meme before memes were a thing. His struggle pierces the veil between slapstick and genuine feeling, not always easy in the frantic world of silent comedy.
It’s easy to get jaded in the age of CGI superheroes and wizards, but I’m always astonished when I contemplate the sheer guts and ingenuity of the silent clowns, when every somersault, stunt and crash were carried out by fragile blood and bone. Crowds reportedly fainted and fled the theatre at some screenings of Safety Last. Lloyd’s climb in Safety Last isn’t ENTIRELY what it appears to be – some great documentary footage on the Criterion disc shows how it was done – but it was still dangerous, challenging work.
Almost a century on, it still dazzles.