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Safety Last!: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Safety Last! (1923) movie poster Safety Last!

Theatrical Release: April 1, 1923 / Running Time: 74 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Directors: Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor / Writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan

Cast: Harold Lloyd (Harold Lloyd/The Boy), Mildred Davis (Mildred/The Girl), Bill Strother ("Limpy" Bill/The Pal), Noah Young (The Law), Westcott B. Clarke (Mr. Stubbs/The Floorwalker)

Buy Safety Last from Amazon.com: Criterion Blu-ray / Criterion DVD / Instant Video

When it comes to silent comedy films, two names often spring to mind as the authorities: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Harold Lloyd might be considered a close third in that class.
Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd typically did not get credit for writing, directing, or producing his films. He usually just starred in them, and had moviegoers in stitches on a regular basis before the talkies came.

Lloyd made his debut in 1913 at age 20, holding uncredited bit parts in a number of shorts. By 1915, he was getting lead roles. One of them in a film called Spit-Ball Sadie cast him as a Tramp-esque character named Lonesome Luke. Lloyd would reprise the role more than fifty times over the next two years for producer/director Hal Roach. The partnership of Roach and Lloyd was a successful and popular one. In 1921, the two made the transition into feature films (which ran as short as 45 minutes back then), Roach producing and taking a story credit and Lloyd drawing copious laughs. This era yielded Lloyd's best-known works, many of them including The Freshman and Speedy made apart from Roach, as the two parted ways in 1923 for Lloyd to form his own independent production company.

One of Roach and Lloyd's last films together has endured as arguably the actor's most famous work and perhaps the producer's greatest achievement outside of creating the Our Gang/Little Rascals series. Safety Last! is a film you know even if you haven't seen. Its iconic image of a man hanging off the hands of a clock is one frequently processed by cultural osmosis. You probably remember seeing clips from that scene in Hugo. If not, you're almost certainly familiar with the homage paid to it in Back to the Future, when an unrelated Lloyd (Christopher as Doc Emmett Brown) struggles to keep everything plugged in to harness the power of a clock tower's documented 1955 lightning strike to send Marty McFly back to 1985. There's even a chance you could know the film by the poster for it that hangs on the bedroom wall of "Full House" goofball Joey Gladstone.

Knowing this ninety-year comedy by association seems perfectly forgivable, but you've got a golden chance to acquaint yourself with the film in its entirety courtesy of The Criterion Collection's recent two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray editions, each given spine #662 in the boutique's treasured line of esteemed world cinema.

Next stop: Los Angeles. Harold Lloyd awaits the train to take him to the big city in "Safety Last!" Back in the summer of 1922 when this was shot, $15 was a conceivable week's wage for a department store sales clerk like Harold Lloyd.

Lloyd plays a young man named Harold Lloyd who leaves his true love Mildred (Mildred Davis, Lloyd's frequent co-star and soon to be wife of forty-six years) to go work in the city. The opening shot makes it look as though "The Boy" is going to his execution, but the noose is in fact what Wikipedia calls "a trackside pickup hoop" and Harold is simply catching a train. He's got to make good so that he can send for Mildred and marry her. She places full confidence in her beau, but things get off to a poor start, when he takes off with a black baby instead of his luggage. He then accidentally boards an ice wagon, but races to catch up and hop onto his train destined for the big city you might recognize as Los Angeles.

Harold's job is as a lowly sales clerk at DeVore Department Store's fabric counter. Though he arrives early each morning, tirelessly catering to the demands of pushy female shoppers is unfulfilling and there's no real shot at a promotion. In letters to his dear Mildred, Harold overstates his success. In reality, Harold nearly loses his job after he mistakenly winds up in a car with clean towels and is late for work. That transgression and wardrobe violation during an overwhelming blitz of shoppers gets noticed by his snooty boss Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke), who refers the matter to the general manager for a scolding.

When Mildred makes a surprise visit to his workplace, Harold scrambles to keep up appearances, posing as the general manager, whose spacious high-tech office he shows off as his own when the real occupant steps out. He also gives the illusion of instructing his colleagues in an effort to make his work look as important as he's made it sound.

The iconic clock tower shot comes at the end as part of an overlong climax that sees Harold vow to climb his workplace's the Bolton Building, a "skyscraper" of twelve stories, in order to collect $1,000 the general manager promises to anyone who can significantly increase business. Harold plans to have someone else do the climbing, but the crowds drawn by the media-reported stunt require otherwise and the bout with the clock face is a brief part of the adventure which also includes pigeons, nets, and falling candy.

As a silent film, "Safety Last!" uses intertitles to convey dialogue, such as this scolding Harold gets from his boss. With Mildred (Mildred Davis) making a surprise visit to his workplace, Harold (Harold Lloyd) scrambles to look as important as he's claimed.

Comedic tastes are constantly changing. Take a look at typical sitcoms from as recent as twenty years ago and see if they don't seem to have come from a different planet.
Even some smash hit films considered riotous just a few decades back can be watched without even cracking a smile. The genre that produces the most measurable immediate reaction tends not to age very well. When retrospective lists of the greatest films of all time are compiled, few comedies make the cut. It's not just that they're considered too frivolous to take seriously, but that most of them aren't all that funny after a while. And if an old comedy isn't funny, it rarely has anything going for it, with story and characters generally being secondary to laughs.

In light of all that, it seems extraordinary that a number of the sight gags of Safety Last! somehow still amuse nearly a century after their creation. To enjoy Chaplin and Keaton films as intended, you have to somewhat adopt the mindset of a 1920s moviegoer and be able to laugh at the jokes that seem unsophisticated by today's standards. Such movies are heralded by critics and historians, but their entertainment value often seems to pale in comparison to their cultural significance. While it's been a while since I've watched the works of those two silent masters and I imagine my cinematic horizons have been considerably broadened in that time, I managed to find plenty of humor in Safety Last! as a 2013 Blu-ray viewer.

I don't think that Roach, Lloyd, co-writer/co-director Sam Taylor, co-writer Tim Whelan, and director Fred C. Newmeyer gave much if any thought to how their film would be perceived a hundred years later. Surely, they were more interested in attracting and entertaining present-day audiences. But their film has stood the test of time remarkably well. It remains charming and whimsical while telling a tale that is perfectly relevant: a guy trying to impress a girl with more than a little insincerity. The letters Harold writes to Mildred would probably be text messages nowadays, but the premise could exist with little change should anyone be as bold and foolish to attempt an official remake.

Seeing a movie this old is a trip. The oft-noted prices of the time will prompt disbelief. An entire three-part lunch costs 50 cents, for instance, and Lloyd's weekly paycheck is for just $15. The powdered faces and colored lips of even male actors also raise questions. In other ways, though, you may be surprised to familiar gags already in place, like a "Kick Me" on the back, which Lloyd achieves with backwards-written chalk to unbelievable perfection, or the old push someone down over a person crouched down behind them, an act Urban Dictionary calls "tabletop."

The once thrilling, long iconic climax of "Safety Last!" finds Harold Lloyd bravely dangling from a Los Angeles skyscraper above crowds of onlookers.

The use of text cards, quite sparingly in this visual-driven film, creates some distance and this likely won't have you laughing as hard as your favorite new TV show or movie. But Safety Last! is quite enjoyable, far more so than its dramatic contemporaries like those of D.W. Griffith that seem quite laborious by comparison. In spite of that, I must confess that while watching Safety Last! an hour or two earlier than I'd been going to bed, I had to fight to stay awake. I suspect scientists could prove that black and white Academy Ratio silent films do not have the same grip over our 21st century brains as the entertainment we're more accustomed to. Ironically, it was that iconic climax which was the most difficult to endure, partly because it came last but also because it is a tad overdrawn and not as entertaining as other parts, the thrills it once offered now somewhat muted.

Criterion gives you two soundtrack options for watching Safety Last! The default is a 1989 synchronized score by Carl Davis. The other choice is Gaylord Carter's improvised organ score from 1969, which incorporates familiar melodies like "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and, less chronistically, Meet Me in St. Louis' Trolley Song. The two mixes are very different, but each has its own appeal and it's nice for Criterion to give you options.

Safety Last!: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
2.0 LPCM (1989 Score), 1.0 LPCM (Alternate 1969 Organ Score)
Subtitles: None
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Thick Clear Keepcase
Also available as 2-Disc DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released in The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 1 DVD (November 5, 2005)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Safety Last! is presented in its original black & white 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio. First released ninety years and three months ago, this is not a recent production and the Blu-ray transfer is not immune to imperfections, like some missing frames here and there plus some scratches and other marks. Given the film's age, though, Criterion's remastering impresses thoroughly and exceeds reasonable expectations. The sharp picture would be satisfying for a film twenty-five years younger. For a film this old, even one selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry back in the mid-'90s, the results are dazzling.

Of course, music is the only element of the soundtracks. Davis' score is offered in uncompressed 2.0 stereo, while Carter's organ music is also uncompressed in a single channel. Both sound very good, and you might well be surprised to find each as relatively old as it is and not the new recording it sounds like.

Suzanne Lloyd, the granddaughter of Harold Lloyd, supplies an extended brand new personal introduction to this film. Harold Lloyd hides behind a curtain as his date (Bebe Daniels) catches her father with another woman in the 1919 short "Young Mr. Jazz."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Criterion packs plenty of varied and substantial extras onto the Blu-ray. First up comes a newly recorded audio commentary by Leonard Maltin and Harold Lloyd archivist Richard Correll.

They offer a knowledgeable screen-specific track full of information and educated observation and give context to locales, gags, stereotypes, the actors, the restoration, and original audiences' reactions.

Video extras, all of which are encoded in HD, begin with a long introduction (more like an interview) by Suzanne Lloyd (17:21), Harold's granddaughter and the president of Harold Lloyd Entertainment. She shares her evolving personal understanding of her grandfather's work and reflects upon his life, his career, his professional choices, and his co-star/wife/her grandmother Mildred Davis.

Next and arguably holding the greatest value among supplements come three of Harold Lloyd's many short films featuring his "Glasses" character. From 1918, Take a Chance (10:21) crosses the paths of "The Sport" (Lloyd) and a young cleaning woman (Bebe Daniels), taking them to picnic grounds for seesawing, a run-in with escaped convicts, and other such fun. 1919's Young Mr. Jazz (9:50) finds Lloyd turning up on a beach and then reuniting with the dame he met there (Daniels) at a tough dance hall/speakeasy. The 1920 two-reeler His Royal Slyness (21:46) casts Lloyd as an all-American boy who switches places with a prince he resembles. Mildred Davis plays the princess.

Each of the pleasingly restored shorts is presented with optional audio commentary by Richard Correll and film writer John Bengtson, who enlighten us with regards to filming locations, borrowed and recycled gags, and recurring actors.

Legendary producer Hal Roach speaks extensively about his friend and collaborator in the 1989 PBS American Masters documentary "Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius." John Bengston and Craig Barron journey to the Los Angeles building where "Safety Last!" was filmed to wrap their heads around the movie's "Locations and Effects."

Consisting of two episodes of the ongoing PBS series "American Masters", the 1989 documentary "Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius" (1:48:00) celebrates the silent star and laments his posthumous obscurity with plenty of film excerpts plus comments from the likes of Hal Roach, admirer Jack Lemmon, and surviving relatives and neighbors. Lloyd's own words are shared from a 1962 interview. The first episode documents Lloyd's rise (and his disfigurement by a prop bomb), while the second episode looks at his trail-off, his influence, his marriage to Mildred Davis and the family they started. It's probably more than the typical buyer cared to know, but Lloyd's biggest fans will eat up this most inspired license.

The new featurette "Locations and Effects" (20:37) gathers thoughts and admiration from Bengtson and visual effects expert Craig Barron about the innovative in-camera illusions of Safety Last! and other Hal Roach/Harold Lloyd comedies. Enlivening the piece, Bengtson and Barron journey to the roof of the building where the famed climax was filmed and create a three-dimensional animation to demonstrate how it was shot.

Unwilling to let his music speak for itself, Carl Davis has much to say about "Scoring for Harold." Harold Lloyd hides behind a sign bearing the title of the film on the Blu-ray's static menu screen.

"Carl Davis: Scoring for Harold" (24:08) is a new interview with Davis, whose 1989 score accompanies the film. He discusses adding music to Lloyd's silent films, specifically Safety.
It's a lot of time to spend on the topic, but Davis has a lot of thoughts to share about his themes and picking fitting sounds to match and complement the visuals.

Customary for Criterion, the final extra is a tangible one found inside the case. In between film and disc credits, this nicely illustrated 24-page booklet serves up "High-Flying Harold", a new essay from New York novelist and film writer Ed Park. It analyzes the film, its spectacled hero, and Lloyd himself, while pondering why the actor isn't as well-known and appreciated these days as Chaplin and Keaton.

The static menu plays some eventually-stopped score over a shot of Lloyd holding up a card with the title. As always, Criterion thankfully equips the disc with full resuming capability, even after the disc is ejected.

Harold Lloyd is surprised and none too pleased to spot a cop he recognizes in "Safety Last!" In L.A., Harold rooms with his pal "Limpy Bill" (Bill Strother), who is equally indigent.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Safety Last! might not engage your senses like a new comedy film, but it improbably stands up as a solid piece of entertainment that is still funny, relatable, and lovable ninety years after it was made. Loaded with bonus features and sporting a spectacular restoration, this Blu-ray Disc is very much up to Criterion's high standards. I'm tempted to declare that if you've only got room for one silent film in your Blu-ray collection, this release would be a worthy contender for the spot. Even if you're not selective to that extreme, you're likely to appreciate the comprehensiveness of this set as a fine representation of early pre-sound cinema.

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Criterion Blu-ray / Criterion DVD / Instant Video

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Reviewed July 14, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1923 Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Pathι Exchange and 2013 The Criterion Collection.
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