Home Video Hovel- Safety Last! by Tyler Smith
There has been an ongoing debate in the film world about which silent comedian is best, Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin. To be sure, each one has his own signature style, from the type of gags in his films to the trademark character he has perfected. And while these two men have stood the test of time, Harold Lloyd has been largely forgotten. A comedian whose character and style was just as distinct as those of the other two, Lloyd was immensely popular in the 1920s, outselling Chaplin and Keaton by a significant margin.
So, why has he been forgotten? It’s likely because Chaplin and Keaton were way ahead of their time and, as film progressed as an art form, their films became more and more relevant. Lloyd, on the other hand, was very much of his time, with fairly standard stories and mostly run-of-the-mill gags. And so it seems that time has passed him by. This is unfortunate, I think, as Harold Lloyd was, in many ways, just as noteworthy as the other two.
First, his character is, I believe, infinitely more relatable than the Buster and Charlie characters. Keaton’s persona, with its constant stone faced expression, seemed to take little interest in the events happening around him. While he may have had goals and desires, his inability- or unwillingness- to express conventional emotions conveyed a certain distance from the proceedings. And Chaplin’s signature character, The Little Tramp, seemed to exist in another dimension entirely. While he always seemed to be striving against the odds, his novel approach to troubling circumstances seemed almost otherworldly.
Lloyd’s character, however, was, in many ways, just like us. He was well-meaning, unafraid to show emotion, and full of hopes and dreams. He wanted to be loved and respected. And when he would discover that he was not, he would react, often in a subdued, tearful way, unlike the melodramatic weeping of a Chaplin. He would think up clever ways around his obstacles, but we feel as though he was really working to make sure everything went his way; it did not just come to him effortlessly. These elements made the character easy to root for, as to cheer him on was to recognize and acknowledge our own hopes, however unfounded they may be.
This connection with the audience would play well into the other defining aspect of Lloyd’s approach to comedy. Like most comedians of the time, Lloyd learned the basics about what made people laugh. Misunderstandings, pratfalls, goofy reactions; these were all pretty standard. But Lloyd didn’t want to stop there. He wanted to get laughs however he could. If this meant nervous laughter, so be it.
And so we come to Safety Last!, Lloyd’s most memorable film, recently released by Criterion. In it, he plays his usual earnest go-getter, a young man attempting to impress the woman he loves through professional success. He winds up working for a store in New York; a store that is looking for a way to bring in new customers. They need a publicity stunt of some kind.
Harold happens across a human fly; a man who gets his kicks by climbing up the sides of skyscrapers. Harold and the fly hatch a scheme in which Harold announces that he will climb up the building which houses his store. He will climb up one story on his own, then switch places with the human fly, who will go the rest of the way, disguised as Harold. As he climbs higher and higher, the crowd will gather in front of the store. In doing so, he will attract new customers to the store, secure his position with his employer, and win over his girl.
This proves easier said than done. As he starts climbing the building, the human fly gets into a scrape with a nearby policeman and Harold is forced to scale the entire building himself. As he slowly makes his way up, each floor provides its own challenges. And with each obstacle, we are made more and more aware of Harold’s precarious position, often dangling from the building. There are close calls and false alarms, but he just keeps going. And the ground gets further and further away.
I’ve seen Safety Last! several times and this sequence is funny, while also being immensely stressful. Of course, we know that Harold won’t fall to his death, but somehow we keep forgetting. And I go back to the relatability of the Harold character. If Buster Keaton were to scale that building, his expressionless face would provide solace; as if his inability to show fear conveyed that there was in fact nothing to be afraid of. And, if the Little Tramp were in this situation, he would find some clever way around these obstacles. In either case, the inherent terror of the ascension would be diluted.
No, we need a character like Harold to climb that building to feel the full effect. At every point, he shows that he is just as aware of his altitude as we are. When he almost falls, he is terrified, as we would be. Every response is a human response, which sells the reality of his situation. Every thrill is milked for maximum impact simply by virtue of this being a real person experiencing this. And we may be breathless, but we want him to continue. At any moment, he could duck into a window and be safe, but he wouldn’t be successful. And we want him to succeed, because, if this meek, vulnerable young man can do this, then surely we can overcome our daily obstacles.
It is this substitution- this casual pathos- that makes Safety Last! and Harold Lloyd in general such a successful comedian. By creating a character that we can connect with, Lloyd sells the reality of any comic circumstance, no matter how strange or frightening. And the laughs come from nervousness or surprise or relief. Certainly, this is different than what the other silent clowns were doing, and indeed, gag for gag, Keaton and Chaplin were more polished. But it is Lloyd’s willingness to mine for every possible type of laugh, made possible through our own empathy with the Harold character, that makes him such a fascinating comedian. And one worth remembering.