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Shelf Life: Harold Lloyd’s silent classic “Safety Last”

Shelf Life: Harold Lloyd’s silent classic “Safety Last” (photo)

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With the simultaneous release of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Michael Hazanavicius’ “The Artist” in the past two weeks, audiences are discovering a whole world of entertainment that preceded the panoramic, 3D, stereoscopic experience they currently talk and text through: silent film. Apparently, for more than the first 30 years of filmmaking’s existence, Hollywood actually made movies that had no audible dialogue, and relied only upon actors’ expressions (and an occasional intertitle) to communicate what the heck was going on in the story. Consequently, it seemed appropriate to go back and try to dig up one of these old fossils and see if they could hold a candle to the emotional power (much less technical virtuosity) of today’s greatest films, such as Jack and Jill.

Harold Lloyd, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, creating dozens of films that enchanted audiences with fun, romantic stories, and the occasional feat of derring-do. Though it’s little-seen in its entirety, the actor’s “Safety Last” not only ranks among his most famous films, but it offers one of the earliest iconic images of on-screen action, of Lloyd hanging precariously from a clock high above the street below. (The selfsame image was an obvious inspiration for Hugo’s poster.) With interest renewed in the delicate and beautiful art of silent filmmaking, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at one of its purported “classics,” “Safety Last” – but how high does it actually rank?


The Facts

Released on April 1, 1923, “Safety Last” was only Lloyd’s fourth feature-length film, but he’d already made almost 100 shorts, including a stunning 39 in 1919 alone. At the time of its release, it helped cement Lloyd as a star, and perhaps more significantly, one of the true fixtures of the silent era. A year later, Lloyd would part ways with his longtime collaborator (and “Safety Last” director) Hal Roach, and launched the Harold Lloyd Film Corporation, where he subsequently produced his own films. Meanwhile, the film maintains a 92 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

What Still Works

At 73 minutes, this little tale of an ambitious small town boy trying to make a name (and a fortune) for himself in the big city might seem too slight to leave an impression. But far beyond its iconic clock shot, “Safety Last” is a hugely entertaining, emotionally-involving story, anchored by Lloyd in the lead role. Having worked for more than a decade in silent by the time it was released, Lloyd had refined his too-smart-by-half screen persona to razor sharpness, and here he gets character out of one jam with as much dexterity as he gets him into another: propelled by his fiancee’s mistaken impression that he’s big and successful, the way he goes from department store clerk to human fly actually seems quite natural, and gives even its short running time epic scope. (Additionally, his physical dexterity on the side of the building, not just climbing but fully taking advantage of the building’s vertiginous heights, is a marvel of poetic motion.)

The great thing about the silent era was the way in which filmmakers were forced to communicate so much without the use of a lot of superfluous, expository dialogue, which arguably has made audiences lazier in the sound era. The storytelling itself is a marvel of economy, injecting jokes into the narrative (and a narrative into jokes) without adding unnecessary embellishments or digressions. For example, there’s a scene in which Lloyd’s character (also named Harold) meets a hometown friend who’s become a cop. In a moment of showing off, he tells his friend to play a prank on a police officer, but inadvertently picks the wrong cop, and while the gag is funny enough as a standalone set piece, it actually puts in motion Harold’s eventual climbing of the outside of his department store.

Meanwhile, Roach’s direction is similarly economical, although there are definitely some really clever, subtle flourishes that augment the humor where they might have played more obviously. For example, right before Harold’s friend Limpy is set to start climbing the building, the cop who’s after him shows up and starts snooping around. Lloyd races into action and leads the cop to a little shack, where he thinks he’ll lock him in, but there’s another door the cop exits through easily, and begins following Harold back to the store. While we see the cop behind Harold as he congratulates himself for his ingenuity, he doesn’t notice him until he starts noticing a shadow following his in perfect rhythm, and it’s a great, understated little revelation that gives the moment more emotional power – if only in terms of hilarity.

What Doesn’t Work

If there’s anything at all that could be faulted in “Safety Last”, it’s that perhaps by today’s standards the humor is occasionally a little broad – not quite the stuff of slipping on a banana peel, but just about. (All of which is nothing a film like jack and Jill would exploit.) Truthfully, I don’t find this problematic at all – there’s a gag in “An Eastern Westerner” where he literally pulls the rug out from under two of his pursuers, then turns a fire hydrant on full blast into a ballroom, and it floors me. But I think it’s rescued not just because of one’s penchant for sight gags or simple goofs, but because of the effective creation of character, and especially in “Safety Last”, you’re pulling for this guy, even if he survives literally by hanging from his fingertips.

The Verdict

“Safety Last” is a great film that remains entertaining and involving today, and has aged only because of its technical limitations. Otherwise, it’s fun, emotionally affecting, and absorbing in ways that quite frankly most modern movies aren’t. New Line’s 2005 box set features a wonderful transfer of that film as well as many other Lloyd classics, so make sure you check that out, because if you’re looking for someone to call “the artist,” you need look no further than him.

Leave your own memories of Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…