While the recent James Bond flick Skyfall was without a doubt one of the best new films I had seen in recent memory, I have to admit feeling a bit crushed about that motorcycle chase at the beginning: specifically, the fact that its creators pasted the faces of its actors upon the bodies of the stuntmen actually performing the task. It was supposed to give it more realism. Alas, it just looked awkward – even more cumbersome than Tinseltown’s other cost-cutting fetish: having its overpaid stars sit in front of a green screen and adding in the rest of the scene (and action) digitally after the fact. After far too many decades of seeing this kind of disappointing anti-realism, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the fact that Hollywood once sported a giant pair of planet-sized testicles.
What am I rambling about, you wonder? Well, it just so happens that, once upon a time – back when the world was not only in black and white but mit out sound to boot, some of its stars lovingly dived into the dangers of stunt work. Take this epic scene in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. for example, wherein the entire portico of a fully-built house falls on the silent film daredevil.
Balls. Big ones, at that, kids. You won’t find Russell Crowe or Liam Neeson doing that anytime soon – even if their lawyers permitted it.
Another silent movie star who loved to tango with terror was the great Harold Lloyd – whose filmography outnumbered that of his two biggest (and best-remembered) rivals, the Charlie Chaplin and the aforementioned Buster Keaton. Sadly, as that newfangled television contraption started to introduce new generations to the performers of the pre-talkie era in the ’50s, Harold Lloyd refused to permit his cinematic contributions (which he owned the copyrights of) to the world to appear on-air, thus denying him a position on the pedestal of heroism he himself helped paved the way for. Today, however, we have home video – and, more importantly, companies like The Criterion Collection to help preserve and redistribute work such as Lloyd’s immortal Safety Last! for generations past and present to discover and cherish.
Safety Last!, Lloyd’s 1923 romantic comedy, starts out with our hero (Lloyd, as himself) moving to the big city to pursue a career. Sadly, his dreams of upper-management bliss only make it so far in reality, as he gets stuck working as a cloth clerk at a busy department store. Nevertheless, Harold still writes home to his girlfriend with tall tales of his various promotions and such – little white lies that inevitably endanger their long-distance romance once his betrothed (Mildred Davis, who became Mrs. Lloyd a few short months before Safety Last! premiered) ventures into the city to see her beloved.
An propitious promise of a professional promotion presents itself in the form of a publicity gimmick that will result in bringing more business in, and Harold enlists the assistance of his roommate (Bill Strother), whom we learn earlier in the film has a knack for climbing buildings. Alas, Fate interferes when it comes time for the grand performance, and poor Harold has to scale the 12-story building himself. And that’s when the Harold Lloyd we all don’t know but should love just the same comes out to play: ascending to the height of filmic fearlessness as he climbs both an actual city structure as well as a deadly façade constructed atop of another in order to scare the bejesus out of us.
Like I said, kids: “Balls. Big ones.” And, mind you, this was well after Harold Lloyd lost a thumb and forefinger in an accident. Thank you, Mr. Lloyd, wherever you are!
The Criterion Collection brings us this ninety-year-old classic to Blu-ray in a presentation that is often unbelievable. Sure, there is that occasional sign of age here and there, but Safety Last! looks quite beautiful in the long run (Lloyd started preserving his own work back in the ’60s and ’70s, so that may have something to do with it). Grain is kept to a minimum (as best it can), detail is very fine in some of the closer shots, and both black levels and contrast are well-balanced. Interestingly, the film – which is presented in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio – is presented here in its original 22fps form. Two musical accompaniment soundtracks are included here: Carl Davis’s orchestration from a 1989 screening (LPCM 2.0), and an improvised organ score from Gaylord Carter as recorded in 1969 (LPCM 1.0).
Special features for Safety Last! include an audio commentary by noted film critic Leonard Maltin and Richard Correll (the latter of whom being Lloyd’s archivist) from 2005; an introduction to the film by Harold’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd; three short films by our underrated moviemaking mastermind – Take a Chance (1918), Young Mr. Jazz (1919), and His Royal Slyness (1920); a two-part television documentary from 1989 entitled Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius; and two new featurettes focusing on the filming locations and scoring of this classic. The package comes nearly wrapped up with a 22-page booklet that contains an essay as penned by writer/editor Ed Park.
Yes, it’s hard to fathom there was a time in cinematic history wherein performers would risk their necks the way Harold Lloyd did in movies like Safety Last!. It’s even harder to grasp that, ninety years on, most of the masses have no clue who Harold Lloyd is. But, we’re working on that. Maybe a biopic is in order, someone? Just be sure there’s no green screen action or CGI and hire a real heroic fellow to star and we should be set!
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