On June 18th, the Criterion Collection released the comedic masterpiece Safety Last! on Blu-Ray. The comical mishaps and physical gags of Harold Lloyd’s shop Boy as he attempts to navigate the ever modernizing metropolis are as brilliant as they are timeless.
As Calum Marsh suggested in his review of the Blu-Ray, it’s not just the incredibly iconic clock dangling sequence that displays Lloyd’s penchant for crafting visual punchlines. The entirety of the film, from its opening sequence involving a supposed hanging, to all the various department store shenanigans, is expertly constructed. Each gag hits not only on a visual and visceral level, but they also function as an ever relevant commentary on the brutal slog of being a worker bee.
It’s incredibly fortunate for current cinephiles and future cinephiles that Criterion has taken the time and effort to put forth such a pristine Blu-Ray. Unfortunately, Lloyd is the least famous side in the Chaplin and Keaton comedic triangle. Due to his lack of recognition, younger film watchers often don’t receive the exposure to Harold Lloyd that his oeuvre warrants.
During my freshman year when I was but a wee cinema studies scholar, I was required to take “Development of Motion Picture I: Origins-1930s”. As the title of the course suggest this serves more or less as a greatest hits of silent film in order to catch up all the cinema studies majors whose viewing tendencies didn’t traditionally extend that far into cinem’s past. While I like to think that I had a fairly developed palette before going to school, I’m afraid to say that like so many others in my generation I hadn’t seen many, if any films from the silent era.
This course opened my eyes to works as varied as Cabiria, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Steamboat Bill Jr., The Birth of A Nation, and of course Safety Last! Through these silent masterpieces I was able to witness the primordial cinematic soup that the current state of cinema crawled out of, but more importantly I grasped how incredibly pertinent these works were to the formation of modern day cinema on a technical and narrative level.
While the various epics viewed were certainly awe inspiring it was the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd that made the most indelible mark on me. These men were not only geniuses when it came to inventive gags and timing, but they were literally live action Looney Toons. Their bodies were their tools, the ultimate comedic weapon that could be deployed in any and all seemingly dangerous situations. Though often in the case of Keaton and Lloyd, these kinetic stunts were in fact very dangerous. Their films were so remarkably powerful because of how visual they were. Cinema is the truest visual medium. But Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd are an extinct breed.
Richard Brody and Max Winter both asserted we currently live in an era without the physical comedian. Yes we have comedians who make funny voices or facial expressions, but none of the physical gags stand on their own. As both Brody and Winter explain, every joke, even physical ones, seem to be wrapped up in a grander pop culture sphere. Seemingly every joke, gag, or stunt in some way or another is referencing something that has come before it. That is why Harold Lloyd precariously dangling from a clock face is so iconic, because it is pure. Yes it certainly comments on the ever continuing progress of modernity, but that isn’t essential to the image, it merely amplifies it.
Cinema has certainly progressed quite far in the past 91 years. But it will never outgrow Harold Lloyd and his clock. Never.