Like all silent films, this one is also unrated. I bonded with my daughter over this one. I read somewhere that silent films are great movies to expose kids to because they are very clear with their intentions. Safety Last! might be one of the better ones because my daughter thought it was hilarious. Mind you, there is one moment that is straight up anti-semetic, so keep this in mind in case your kids ask you why you are cringing at that moment. Not rated, but mostly fine.
DIRECTORS: Fred Neymeyer and Sam Taylor
My daughter is a convert. I knew what I was doing when I borrowed The Invention of Hugo Cabret from the library and read it with her. I was indoctrinating her. I'm a devious and despicable human being who brainwashes his kids so he's allowed to watch good movies with them. What? Just because you didn't think of it. I also made one of my daughter's first words "Hodor", which is all she'd repeat around the house. That one actually probably did make me a bad person. But as part of this whole study of early film, she really wanted to see why Harold Lloyd was hanging from that clock in her book. So we watched 10 to 15 minutes a day (not ideal way to watch a movie, but it also kept her attention way better than trying to shotgun the whole thing in one sitting) and she cracked up. The jokes work.
When prepping this essay, I looked for high quality photos of Safety Last! There aren't a ton. Almost all of them are Harold hanging from the clock and I know why. That image is iconic. I keep thinking what it must have been like to be a filmmaker during this period in history. There was no book of rules and regulations. This was the Wild West (occasionally literally) and filmmakers had to make due. I think of Buster Keaton and some of those shots. You know that the guy had to do all of his own stunts in the way that you are seeing them. Unfortunately, that shot of the clock showed another picture killing the magic for me a bit. It's got the background really happening, but there's a mini set built around the clock that is a nice hybrid of a real stunt and a set. Still, there's something so ingenious about how that shot works. It's weird, watching it with my daughter. She knows about the clock. The entire time, she's guessing how Harold is going to get to the clock. She didn't care much about the threadbare plot of Safety Last! In fact, I don't think the economic breakdown of the characters even sunk in one bit. She's much more a slapstick girl at this point. But that last scene...we didn't watch that in a ten minute block. Oh my, she stayed up late that night. We had to watch that whole sequence unbroken. I feel like I'm treating Olivia like a character in a film herself. She would watch, wide-eyed, and squeal when Harold almost fell. She'd cover her eyes, but peek through her fingers to keep amazed at what she was viewing. She had some weird questions. I think that's par for the course when it comes to Olivia watching movies. She has this odd understanding that actors exist and that the people on screen aren't their characters. But she keeps asking "Is this real?" and I'm not quite sure how to respond. I discuss with her the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. I talk about what an actor's job is. I try to explain to her what a documentary is. She seems to get all this when we watch these things, but then always ends with the question, "Is this real?" I have no good answer for her at age six. But she gave the perfect emotional response to the daring of film. Appropriately, her reaction was similar to the kids in Hugo watching the same film. I hope she wasn't trying to mimic them. I really have the vibe that she really reacted the way she felt. But that might be the joy of those early films. They have the ability to make us more afraid than anything that we get today.
I don't want to go on a huge diatribe about the value of old movies versus new movies. It actually drives me up the wall when people argue this way. Both have their values and both should be watched for what they are. But one of the real advantages to watching silent films is the knowledge that you don't know which way the wind is going to blow. The things I watch in silent films seem impossibly dangerous. Perhaps this extended into the late Chaplin era stuff, but these were guys who put themselves on the line. I think that's why we keep gravitating towards Jackie Chan and Tom Cruise. (More Chan than Cruise, but those Mission: Impossible stunts are getting pretty insane.) We know that there are performers who know the easy way and the hard way to do something and that they know that the hard way is oddly more compelling than the easy way. I watch Lloyd's antics in this movie, which really culminate with the end and I just see how much the envelope is being pushed. Most of Safety Last! is actually pretty tame, but they use the space remarkably well. Lloyd, while being quite the physical comedian, is more about timing and wit. Buster Keaton, from what I've seen of his work, might be a completely physical guy. I don't know how he survived any of his movies, but his jokes work. Lloyd is somewhat different. Lloyd is making more commentary on society than his peers, at least in this time in history. Perhaps his thoughts on women shoppers is a bit outdated, but it is also mostly harmless. This era loved the false pretense and the dramatic irony to sell its humor. The entire middle section of the film is just an excuse for the other shoe to drop. (I am using idioms like there's no tomorrow.) Harold's lie is extremely entertaining to watch. It's odd to think of this in terms of suspense, but Lloyd manages to sell that idea that he should have been caught, yet the story keeps going on. There's a little bit of a teasing that happens with the audience. Each button has to be hit. Every uncomfortable encounter has to happen and there has to be a way for Harold to get out of the situation. It's absolutely fantastic and I love the story, despite its lack of depth.
I wonder why I'm so content with Safety Last! having such a simple plot. I mean, this is as thin as it comes. The entire plot is a setup to get Harold Lloyd to climb a building, despite the fact that his character shouldn't be the one doing it. But to do that, there has to be this roundabout story about Harold pretending to be rich for his girl. I know that's a very simple story, but there's something very sweet about it. Sure, he's lying for the entire length of the movie. But there are these sweet moments where Harold is sacrificing his own happiness for the sake of this girl who thinks he's successful. It's a relationship that's based on lies and is completely unsustainable, but it's sweet regardless. Harold never really has his come-uppens. He just continues to thrive, albeit barely. The final scene is really a deus-ex-machina that allows the bare bones story to continue towards its assumed happy ending. I'm think about the era that this film came out. I would normally attribute a story like this to Depression-era storytelling. Harold represents the kind underdog who jumps through hoops and provides entertainment throughout. But this is 1923. This is the Jazz Age. The attitude of the films were still that of novelty. Safety Last! is not simply novelty. Maybe the filmmakers didn't think that way. I could easily see that they were all just trying to tell some jokes and make some money, but there's a lot more going on to this film than simply what they could get away with. Safety Last! might be one of the hallmarks of the silent slapstick comedies. I know that the name Harold Lloyd doesn't exactly have the clout of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but I consider him to be a genius for this movie alone. Keaton's movies are funny. Chaplin's movies are fun. There's something sweet about Lloyd. This is all subjective and you can tell me to go jump in a lake, but Lloyd uses the same tropes that we've seen in other silent films to somehow charm his audience. That's what this movie is! It's charming. Sure, it makes me nervous and I probably have my blood pressure raised with all of the near death moments at the end, but it is all because Lloyd creates a much more lovable guy than I've seen in Keaton's movies. Chaplin might have a little bit of a leg up. I can't help but love the Tramp, especially in The Kid. But Lloyd never allows Harold to become annoying or unworthy of our love. I honestly root for Harold throughout the movie, despite the fact that I've seen this one before.
I don't know what separates Safety Last! from other silent films. But it is really something special. My son, Henry, really wanted to enjoy it. He can't read, so a lot of the movie was lost on him, even with me reading. But he was mesmerized whenever he watched a part with us. In a few years, I'll probably watch it again with him. This movie is a great introduction for kids into the silent era. I can't stand when people go their whole lives avoiding silent or black-and-white movies. But I'm so glad that my kids seem to be getting it at such a young age. Give this one a whirl. It's a really fun time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.