DirectorFred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Release Date(s)1923 (June 18, 2013)
Studio(s)Hal Roach Studios/Pathé (Criterion - Spine #662)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: A
Dubbed by a few as the “Poor Man’s Charlie Chaplin,” Harold Lloyd was also considered by many to be Chaplin’s equal. Much like Chaplin, he was a bit of an entrepreneur and produced much of his own work. The only difference is that Lloyd didn’t take as much credit for it as Chaplin did. Quite often his only credit was his starring role, but he was always heavily involved behind the scenes in the creative process as well, under-crediting himself and sharing that credit with his colleagues. A lot of that spirit can be found in one of his great comedy works: Safety Last!
Looking back on Safety Last! today, ninety years later, it’s hard to imagine a time when comedy could be this simple and yet smart at the time. For today’s movie-going audiences that have to have everything told to them out loud in order for them to understand what’s going on AND have toilet humor and cheap jokes to make them laugh, this film won’t appeal to them. It appeals mainly to those with a bit of taste in their film diet I think. I’m not going to sit here and lie and say that I laughed whole-heartedly all the way through the film, because I didn’t. I found it charming, and superior to today’s comedy in its simplicity. And in its simplicity, you can find genius hidden underneath. It’s definitely dated in the comedy department, but the film techniques are way ahead of their time and can be taken from granted now.
For instance, the opening shot of the film lets you know right away what kind of film you’re in for. We open with the boy (Lloyd) standing behind a set of bars and looking very upset about something. In the background, there is what appears to be a noose. One by one, characters enter the frame: his girlfriend, her mother and then a man in uniform. The girlfriend is crying as he follows the man in uniform towards the back of the frame, where the noose is hanging. The shot then changes to the other side of the bars and we realize that this is a train station, the man in uniform is a conductor and the noose is not a noose at all, but a trackside pickup hoop. We then realize that this boy is leaving his home and his girlfriend and her mother were there to say goodbye to him. It’s a clever visual joke, but it also tells you subliminally about Lloyd’s character. He’s worried about his trip and leaving home, but he’s also worried about pleasing his girlfriend and her mother, and probably feels like he’s being hung out to dry. Like I said: simple, but smart. Its moments like this that shine the most for me in this film, and not just the breathtaking final act of the film wherein, due to a crazy set of circumstances, Lloyd must climb a building in front of hundreds of people. But amongst all of the trickery and hair-raising comedy antics is a warm-hearted story about happily ever after, and the road that it took to get there. These are the reasons why the film holds up the most and while it will continue to live on far beyond many, and I do mean many, of its contemporaries.
Thanks to the good folks at Harold Lloyd entertainment (including his own granddaughter), an original nitrate print of Safety Last! has been kept very well preserved and given a restored 2K transfer for this Blu-ray release. And I do have to say that, going into this, I expected a certain kind of look in a silent film, especially from 1923. For its age, it’s unbelievable the amount of image detail that is present in the film. Stunning would be a better word, actually. The images are rich with information, and distinguishing between different objects is no different than seeing them in person. The film also appears to have had no grain removed from it, and it looks very solid and stable. Blacks and whites are both very strong, and both the brightness and the contrast are virtually perfect. There are faults in the original print that have been left intact, such as vertical lines, mostly in the right edge of the frame, but they’re never a distraction. To say the least, it’s quite a strong presentation that should leave minimal amount of room for complaint. Since this is a silent film, you’ll find an accompanying soundtrack on two channels. One is a restored stereo score from 1989 by composer Carl Davis, and the other is a mono score from the late 1960’s by organist Gaylord Carter. Both tracks sound great, but the 1989 score sounds better for obvious reasons. It was recorded much later and in stereo, but was also composed and synchronized to the film itself, unlike the Gaylord Carter score. It’s a matter of taste I suppose as to which you will like the most. Personally, I like the Carl Davis score the most, as it is the most thrilling of the two, and really gives the film much more weight. As far as sound quality is concerned, the Davis score is superior, even though the Carter score is also presented uncompressed. The former has a lot of dynamic range to it and couldn’t represent the film any better. So like I said, both are great, but the choice will be up to you as to which suits the film better.
For the disc’s extras you get an audio commentary with film critic Leonard Maltin and director & Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll; an introduction to the film by Suzanne Lloyd, Lloyd’s aforementioned granddaughter and president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment; the documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius; three Harold Lloyd shorts, newly-restored: Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919) and His Royal Slyness (1920), with optional commentary by Correll and film writer John Bengtson; another documentary entitled Locations and Effects, with Bengtson and visual-effects expert Craig Barron; an interview with Carl Davis; and finally, a 20 page-booklet with a new essay by critic Ed Park.
The bottom line: Safety Last! is back, with a roar, on this fantastic release from the good folks at Criterion. It may be dated in a variety of ways, but it’s still around because we all enjoy a good yarn about a sweet-natured person who gets into shenanigans of all kinds, but wants nothing more than to please their loved ones. In other words, a simple comic tale that’s never dated by its heart and soul. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons