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Safety Last!

(1923) **** Unrated
78 min. Pathé Exchange Inc./New Line. Director: Fred Newmeyer. Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis.

Knowledgeable film fans know that silent comedy produced not one, not two, but three towering stars, all of whom married brilliant sight gags to the romantic pursuit of an Everyman: Charlie Chaplin, whose Little Tramp was a sad clown with a propensity for mischief; Buster Keaton, the Great Stone Face with a genius for timing and stunts; and Harold Lloyd, "the King of Daredevil Comedy," clad unassumingly in straw hat and round, horn-rim glasses.

Orson Welles reportedly said of Harold Lloyd, "he's surely the most underrated of them all. The intellectuals don't like the Harold Lloyd character—that middle-class, middle-American, all-American college boy. There's no obvious poetry to it, and they miss that incredible technical brilliance....Someday he'll get his proper place, which is very high."

Until now, Lloyd has been primarily known for one film, a rep-house perennial called Safety Last!. This is the one with the infamous sequence performed on the ledges of a downtown office building: in one of the indelible movie images, poor Harold finds himself dangling from the face of a clock. An essential selection from the rolls of screen comedy and silent cinema, Safety Last! in 2005 kicked off a touring program of more than a dozen of "the third genius"'s films. (The theatrical reissues preceded the rollout of Lloyd's entire output on DVD.) In 2013, Safety Last! gets the Criterion Collection treatment, making a fresh case for Lloyd's importance.

In Safety Last!, Lloyd's "The Boy" is a department-store clerk trying to keep his girl (Mildred Davis, Lloyd's real-life wife) on the line until he can make enough money in the big city to bring her in from Great Bend, their small hometown. At the De Vore Department Store, The Boy must face Mr. Stubbs (Westcott B. Clarke)—the severe, bird-like head floorwalker—and a mob of women (this scene may have forever imprinted the archetype of women turned into Dionysian worshippers at the sign of a sale). When The Girl shows up to surprise The Boy, it's not long before he's risking life and limb to pave the way for their life together.

The Boy's money woes lead him to tighten his belt and hock everything he and his roommate own to maintain a lie of prosperity for his fiancee (in an unfortunately racist relic of the early '20s, Lloyd purchases a jewelry chain from a hand-wringing, money-grubbing Jew). The Boy's roommate—played by real-life human-fly Bill Strother—proves to have a propensity for scaling buildings, a skill his resourceful friend plots to exploit. If the roommate can only scale the twelve-story Bolton Building, the friends can split a $1000 payday 50/50.

Many complications ensue, with Harold strung along, floor by floor, to climb the building himself. With ever-vertiginous angles capturing both Lloyd and the city below, The Boy is put through paces that prove Murphy's Law and cement the star's daredevil image. Increasing dangers allow a brilliant escalation of tension and hilarity, as in the moment when Lloyd swings back and forth, trying to grab a rope that the audience knows isn't attached to anything.

Director Sam Taylor (The Freshman, The Taming of the Shrew) and beloved silent comic Harold Lloyd are equally adept at staging crisp domestic sight gags conjured out of comic misdirections (like Harold and his roommate hiding from their landlord) and grand-scale, jaw-dropping stunts (any of a series of vehicle mishaps and, of course, the hair-raising finale).

Knowing that Lloyd performed most of his stunts here, with only eight fingers (after losing two in an earlier movie-set accident), only makes his work all the more impressive. Though there's some movie magic on Lloyd's side, Safety Last! is one of the all-time nailbiters. On video, Safety Last! is a certified treat, but in packed movie houses, with audiences invariably gasping and giggling on every cue, it's a near-religious experience.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: PCM 1.0, PCM 2.0

Street date: 6/18/2013

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion—already the home of Chaplin's output—now brings Harold Lloyd into the fold with its special edition of Safety Last! The film looks great. This is a picture that has been well preserved (by Lloyd himself), and it gets extra help from Criterion's digital cleanup tools without ever sacrificing a gloriously film-like appearance. The black-and-white gradations are perfectly calibrated, and detail is exceptional. One couldn't ask for more from a ninety-year-old film. Audio options include Carl Davis' 1989 orchestral score in LPCM 2.0 and Gaylord Carter's organ accompaniment, recorded in 1969, in LPCM 1.0. The choice is a matter of taste. Conventional wisdom favors the Davis score, but as a frequent patron of the Stanford Theatre and the Castro Theatre, my preference is for the organ track. I find Davis' score overwrought; though it has its "high points," it typically blunts the humor with its dramatic overemphasis. At any rate, both tracks sound good, though the Davis score naturally shows more dynamic range and fullness.

Bonus features are outstanding, beginning with a 2005 audio commentary by historian Leonard Maltin and Lloyd expert Richard Correll. The pair prove enthusiastic (Maltin is an annual attendee of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro) and knowledgable in talking us through the film, though they sometimes succumb to describing what's on screen.

"Suzanne Lloyd Introduction" (17:21, HD) allows the granddaughter of Harold Lloyd to share personal and professional insights about the star.

Criterion also loads up the disc with three Lloyd shorts, each with optional commentary by Richard Correll and John Bengston: 1918's "Take a Chance" (10:21, HD), 1919's "Young Mr. Jazz" (9:50, HD), and 1920's "His Royal Slyness" (21:46, HD), which, like Safety Last!, pairs Lloyd with Mildred Davis.

The two-part Thames television documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1:48:00, HD) does a fine job of profiling Lloyd as a man and an artist, and includes interviews (with collaborators, family and friends, as well as archival ones of Lloyd) and home movies.

In "Locations and Effects" (20:37, HD), Craig Barron and John Bengston discuss the Los Angeles locations  for Safety Last! and how Lloyd and his crew created the illusion of greater danger than the star actually faced.

A "Carl Davis Interview" (24:08, HD) allows the composer to discuss his approach to scoring four of Lloyd's features and two of his shorts.

Last but not least, Criterion includes a 22-Page Booklet with tech specs, credits, film stills, and author Ed Park's biographical and critical essay on Lloyd and Safety Last!.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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