In the genre of Silent Comedy, two names stand at the forefront – Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But a third comedy name is usually absent from praise, the highly underrated genius – Harold Lloyd. During the 1920s, Lloyd grossed higher from his pictures than his peers, perhaps because he churned out many more pictures than the perfectionist Chaplin and chose smaller budget subjects than Keaton’s escapades. In any case, Lloyd was a silent star with hundreds of credits to his name, and after a brief stint as an extra, he was propelled to stardom thanks to a partnership with legendary producer Hal Roach.
Safety Last! is arguably Lloyd’s masterpiece, the peak of his stride in which Lloyd tapped the essence of comedy which unlocked the secrets of humour for the rest of his silent filmography. Though like many silent comedy stars, sound all but destroyed his career. In Safety Last! we have a simple story, Lloyd, known only as the Boy, leaves for the big city to make money and a life before sending for his wife-to-be. The Boy pretends to be rich despite only having a lowly job, and is forced to perform a dangerous act to gain money quickly to fool his fiance. A delightfully simple structure which spouts endless obstacles for Lloyd and fun for us. As Lloyd is quoted as saying ‘The more trouble you get a man into, the more comedy you get out of him’ and Safety Last! has enough trouble to satisfy ten comedies.
Lloyd demonstrates a superb talent for balletic buffoonery in break-neck speed over the course of seventy minutes. A comedy with such a high octane pace for laughs and gags would not be matched until Airplane! decades later. In simple slapstick gags, Lloyd abounds with an inhuman elasticity and resilience to grand stunts. However, Lloyd exceeds the bounds of simplicity with graceful and ingenious quick thinking. In constant instances, Lloyd solves tricky situations with ridiculous and ludicrous solutions. What is the best way to sneak into work when running late? Pretend to be a mannequin, of course. How do you hide from your angry landlady? Obviously hang yourself up in your coat! But so much love is garnered for the Boy because Lloyd moves with grace in every scene, whether getting into trouble or out of it, in imaginative and far fetched brilliance.
Lloyd is a loveable icon because he is an everyman. Chaplin’s waddle walking, tiny tash Tramp is an enduring simpleton, Keaton’s effortless dead-pan gloom is the equilibrium of the straight and the funny man duo embodied in one. Lloyd does not have idiosyncratic characteristics. Early in his career, Lloyd created the Lonesome Luke character which he readily jettisoned and adopted horn-rimmed glasses. This persona was the beginning of a fruitful career. But why is this such a strong figure? Beneath the ubiquitous style of the horn rimmed glasses lies a very average looking man. However, it is this lack of eccentricity in his physicality which makes Lloyd a fantastic comedy actor, he is us in a real world on the worst day of our lives. Lloyd has countless quotes attributed to the secrets of comedy but this is perhaps the most representative of his style – ‘[Simple misfortunes] are funny because they have happened to all of us and probably will happen again’. Lloyd is readily accessible, he is us through and through and his every pratfall, perilously climbing a building, racing against time to get to work, braving the swarms of shoppers is an exaggerated life happening to an ordinary man.
To boil down exactly why Safety Last! is funny is like trying to explain the colour red. It is impossible to convey the joy and genius of this comedy which can only be appreciated through viewing. A wonderful film from the Third Master.
The Boy is in yet another pickle. In a scheme to earn a thousand dollars, the Boy offered his boss a crowd attracting spectacle of his friend climbing the building. Unfortunately, this athletic climber is busily pursued by police, leaving the Boy no choice but to make the climb. In a climatic scene as funny as it is heart-stopping, Lloyd traverses storey after storey with surmounting obstacles. Before his ordeal is over, Lloyd has a mouse climb his pants legs, a gut wrenching drop, and most iconic of all, a death-defying dangle from a clock face. Lloyd’s hapless hero hanging from a clock is the defining silent comedy image. Incredibly, Lloyd performed this stunt despite an accident which left him with only eight fingers, an incredible sequence.