Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! is inseparable from its signature image—that of Lloyd himself, bespectacled and well-tailored, hanging precariously from an oversized clock fixed to the side of a 12-story building in downtown Los Angeles, his hands clasped tightly around the minute hand as if it were a rope with which he might be lowered gently back to earth. It’s a masterful image: The composition is almost painterly, drawing the eye from Lloyd up through his arms to the broken clock face and the towering skyscraper to which it’s attached, its height seemingly insurmountable, before taking us out and over the cityscape, the teeming crowds, and finally down the long, distant street, which leads directly back to our hapless hero’s neatly polished wingtips.
This single shot establishes not only a legible sense of space, an urban void into which a man may be instantly swallowed up, but also of movement, of both the climb and the fall it might portend. The image conveys the danger of the situation so elegantly, unobscured by montage, that it seems somehow counterintuitive for it to be configured as broad comedy rather than gripping drama. But the reason it works as the setup for a series of increasingly spectacular punchlines is the same reason it endures as iconography: Lloyd’s clock-stopping stunt, like Chaplin’s gear-worming in Modern Times more than a decade later, is so bound up in the shared anxieties of modern living that it can only function as a necessary comic release. The skyscraper and the clock aren’t incidental: They are central symbols of a society just settling into an industrialized, urbanized modernity. Lloyd’s sight gag not only taps into the feelings of the period, but fully and succinctly articulates them.
And yet, while a dangling Harold Lloyd may be the film’s most iconic image, many of its most effective gags are found before this climactic set piece even begins. The striking tableaux which opens Safety Last!—a misdirect in which waiting for an arriving train is made to look like the preparation for a hanging, as though being sent to the big city were its own kind of death sentence—is simply the first in a long line of jokes made at the expense of modern living, whose basic character the film defines as essentially chaotic. Miscommunication and physical blunders abound in a metropolis seemingly designed to not only accommodate, but actively encourage both, and if Lloyd happens to walk unknowingly into one disaster after another, it’s less the fault of his own clumsiness than the unsound landscape he’s resigned to traverse. And so public transportation becomes, in the film’s conception, a Darwinian anthill crawling with ardent hangers-on, while a department store on sale day seems a veritable battlefield on which a clerk stands little chance of surviving the afternoon.
Many of these sequences would hardly feel out of place in a contemporary comedy, a testament as much to the vigor of the filmmaking as to how little our problems have changed in nearly a century. Earning a living is still a Sisyphean grind; customer service is still a tortuous profession; customers, generally speaking, are still oblivious and cruel. At its best, Safety Last! draws out the humor inherent in these truths at the same time that it reminds us of their awfulness, an effective strategy that’s both cathartic and sad. One sequence that does this especially well finds Lloyd, a week’s paycheck in hand, torn between a 50-cent “businessman’s lunch” and a piece of jewelry he feels compelled to buy for his girl. The gift will cost him $15.50, all the money he has in the world. While buying it he stares across the street at a display window in which sits a bountiful five-course feast, and, as he hands each of his last five dimes to the jeweler, the five courses disappear one by one. The scene ends with Lloyd stepping out of the shop and into the street, but now, as he looks once more at the restaurant, the image goes out of focus. Modern living means self-abnegation and working hard for something you cannot even buy. Not much has changed in 91 years.
Safety Last! arrives on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection via a new 2K digital transfer, restored by Janus Films over the course of 300-plus hours of cleaning and repair, and the results, presented in 1080i, are gorgeous. The image is well-balanced, with deep black levels and tremendous depth. Contrast and clarity are excellent throughout, particularly evident in the long shots of the final set piece; so much of the city below is visible in full detail that it’s hard to believe the film is as old as it is. And Criterion has included not one, but two distinctive soundtrack options, available in uncompressed stereo and uncompressed monaural; the stereo track, which features a full orchestra, sounds notably richer, but the mix is well-equipped to handle to both.
This is one of the most bountiful collections of special features Criterion has presented in recent memory, cramming the disc with so much premium content that it might have passed for a box set. In addition to the two separate soundtracks mentioned above, the disc also includes an illuminating audio commentary track from Leonard Maltin and Harold Lloyd archivist and expert Richard Correll, a video introduction by Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne, a substantive 108-minute documentary feature on Lloyd’s career and legacy, three newly restored short films starring Lloyd, each of which includes its own commentary track, an interview with composer Carl Davis (whose orchestral score is the central soundtrack), and an essay by critic Ed Park included in the collectible book. The real highlights here are the Lloyd shorts, of course, which have been newly restored for this release, but an equally valuable extra can be found in the new documentary featurette "Locations and Effects," a look at the often monumental effects conceived and executed by Lloyd and the film crew in camera. Put together by scholar John Bengtson, who runs the resourceful Silent Locations film blog, with the help of effects specialist Craig Barron, this is among the most essential special features on any disc released this year.
Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! reminds us how little has changed in nearly a century.