Safety last is an amusing comedy whose nuts and bolts are the basic archetypes who inhabit it – its main characters are “The Boy” (Harold Lloyd), “The Girl” and “The Pal”. The boy is a young lad from a small town who wants to make it in the city so he can marry his sweetheart. The others are defined relative to him. Among the minor characters is “The Law” and a drunk – again, very self-explanatory. As with a lot of silent films there’s a purity to the storytelling and comedy. They’re stripped down to the fundamentals with no unnecessary flab. It’s timeless, has universal appeal and is funny, but not overly so.
The boy’s plans to make it big in the city aren’t going so well. Himself and his pal are behind with the rent and neither of them have very good jobs. Lloyd is a sales clerk in a department store, while his friend works in construction (or on construction – he’s one of those young men oft-photographed straddled atop the frame of a skyscraper with no harness). In spite of his failure to succeed, our young hero is determined to keep up appearances, borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today. He sends his girl gifts that he can’t afford along with letters inflating his progress thus far. A lot of the situational comedy here is as a result of the lad trying to cover up some fib or other, with things often just getting worse and worse, before with some quick-thinking he resolves his immediate troubles in an often unexpected way.
Stunts are also a draw. As you may have imagined, climbing features. Indeed, the image of Lloyd hanging from the clock is probably more well-known now than the film itself or the actor (or maybe that was just me?). While such dangerous practical stunts are still impressive, a bit of climbing is no longer as thrilling as it once was. These scenes do have unpredictable spice added here and there but it does follow a formula. “Formulaic” would be an unkind word to use to describe this film, but it is often accurate, co-existing with its inventiveness, good humour and occasional hilarity. Safety Last is a good film, but not a great one.
A point of interest: Lloyd had lost his right thumb and forefinger when a prop bomb accidentally exploded in 1919, making his climbing in Safety Last even more impressive.