Review: Safety Last! (1923)

safety last

A silent comedian who isn’t the least bit funny, oh joy!

Titles By: H.M. Walker
Directed By: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor

Harold Lloyd had been on my radar for some time now. He was one of the silent era comedic greats who I had yet to see and was very much looking forward to checking out. As the seconds ticked by in Safety Last! I struggled to see what the big deal was with Mr. Lloyd. The simplest way to describe him is unfunny. He’s not funny, no matter how hard he tries. I wanted to laugh, I wanted to enjoy his character, root for his character, and have a great time with his character. I sat through all of Safety Last! without ever once forming a grin, chuckling to myself, or laughing out loud. I’m not sure what others see in Mr. Lloyd but I was disappointed in his lack of wit, his lack of comedic timing, his lack of charm, and his general blandness. When the lead of a comedic film is as devoid of personality and charm as Mr. Lloyd, that makes for a comedic film that is very hard to enjoy.

With the comedy of Safety Last! failing me I turned to the construction of narrative and character to try and find redeemable qualities in the film. This is, again, an area where the film sorely let me down. The construction of the film is that of the cheap joke, the easy laugh. I didn’t see much difference between Safety Last! and many of the critically panned romantic comedies of today. The film of Sam Taylor and Fred C. Newmeyer always go for the lowest common denominator in its comedy. That’s not to say that it’s crass, but that it takes the easiest route to a punchline. When it came to the filmic construction of Safety Last! I found the film to be as dull and uninteresting as any comedy I have seen in some time.

For me, it all comes back to Harold Lloyd. He is, in every way one can imagine, a low rent version of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. He’s trying so hard to be those two men, but he never manages to be better than a lesser, and incomplete, version of those two men. He tries for the physical comedy of Mr. Keaton, but Mr. Lloyd leaves the tension and timing of Mr. Keaton’s physical comedy behind in favor of awkward and clumsily choreographed movement. Mr. Lloyd attempts to employ the wit and humanism of Mr. Chaplin’s famous Tramp, but he forgets to be witty and digs so far into humanity that he becomes no better than the guy down the street who works a nine to five job and thinks his office stories are the funniest thing since sliced bread. If I want to watch a Buster Keaton or Charles Chaplin comedy then I will seek out their work, the second rate work of Harold Lloyd simply doesn’t pass muster.

I know I’m in the extreme minority when it comes to Safety Last! and Harold Lloyd. Heck, I’m not even writing off Mr. Lloyd yet. It’s just that for all the reasons listed above I’m not coming away from Safety Last! with the greatest first impression of Mr. Lloyd. That’s a bit concerning when most people have told me that Safety Last! is his best film, but maybe he’ll surprise me in the future. Safety Last! is a disappointing, and painfully unfunny film, you simply can’t force comedy.




4 responses to “Review: Safety Last! (1923)

  1. Wow, but I absolutely see your point. Lloyd’s output isn’t for everyone and works best in the period it was shot in when audiences wanted more funny guys falling around for their nickels an dimes. I haven’t seen this in ages, but I think I laughed more as a kid than the last time I saw it as an adult…

    It’s a great thing that Lloyd’s ability at physical comedy was made more interesting because he was missing a few fingers on one hand and wore a specially made glove in his movies. It’s hard to notice unless you really look closely.

    Also, he was a great photographer of ladies later on (there’s a book of 3-D nudes that’s pretty spectacular).

  2. I totally respect that others will watch this, or other Lloyd films, and come away loving him as a performer. He never clicked with me, so much so that I found Safety Last! laborious to get through. I’m not writing him off though, maybe some of his other films will change my opinion.

  3. For all its praise, I’ve always felt it was one of Lloyd’s weaker full length films. If you take away the stunts that everyone talks about, there really isn’t much left. You should check out The Freshman or Speedy, which, for me, are much better films showing Lloyd’s comedic talent.

  4. The Freshman is in my Hulu Plus queue, so I should get to that sometime in the near future.

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