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With: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke
Written by: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, titles by H.M. Walker
Directed by: Fred Neymeyer, Sam Taylor
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 70
Date: 04/01/1923

Safety Last! (1923)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Knock Clock Jokes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many people today probably recognize that photo of a bespectacled man in a straw hat hanging from the hands of a giant clock on a high building, but the real trick is getting people to name the man or even the film it was taken from.

Hopefully the new Safety Last! DVD and Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection will take several steps in correcting that situation, and re-establishing it as a comedy masterpiece worthy of anything by Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. (Note: The movie is also available in the expensive, but essential "Harold Lloyd Collection.")

Often referred to as the "Third Genius," Lloyd (1893-1971) was every bit as resourceful as Chaplin or Keaton. He adopted a recognizable and appealing screen persona, the "boy" with the glasses, shy, an easy target for bullies, but hopelessly romantic and tirelessly optimistic. He was a sort of whiz kid, smart enough to dream up clever solutions to his problems, but not lucky enough to avoid them in the first place.

A shrewd businessman in real life, Lloyd rarely took directorial credit for his films, though he was their chief "creator." Over the years, he retained their rights and kept his prints in good condition, aided by his granddaughter Suzanne, whom he raised. When Lloyd died, Suzanne vowed to keep her grandfather's name in lights.

Over the past few years, she has published books and magazine articles about her grandfather, and has overseen the restoration of, and the composition of new musical scores for a great many of his films.

As part of the plot of Safety Last! (1923), Harold dreams up a scheme to bring extra customers to a department store by having his friend, a human fly, climb up the side of the building. But at the last second, Harold must take over, as an aggressive cop unfortunately waylays his buddy. The best part of the joke is that Harold is only required to climb "one more floor," each time he arrives safely on a new landing. As viewers will discover, the clock is only one part of this elaborate, astounding sequence, which beautifully mixes realism, humor, and sweat-inducing tension.

Yet the secret to Lloyd's continued appeal goes back to that clock. As Suzanne Lloyd told me in a 2002 interview, "I think it's just an iconic image, and an amazing photograph -- somebody hanging onto time. Isn't everybody trying to do that?"

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