Safety Last!

Safety Last! Pathé  1923.

Before watching the movie:

For the first time in 20 years, works copyrighted in the United States are entering the public domain, after being put in a freeze by the Copyright Term Extension Act, because who cares if everyone who participated in creating these works are probably dead by now when there’s still profit to be had? Well, as of the beginning of the month (January 2019), works published in 1923 have finally had their copyrights expire, and among them is this iconic film that nobody seems much interested in the plot of.

To be fair, the stunts and slapstick routines are likely more the point of the movie than the story they’re hung upon, but as far as I can tell without reading too far ahead, this is the story of a young man’s misadventures in becoming respectable enough for his girlfriend to marry him. The reason everyone talks about it though, is because of the iconic, very real, and dangerous scene where Lloyd hangs from a clock, which has been homaged endlessly. To me, and probably others, “a man dangles from a clock hand” is a Back to the Future reference, but when Christopher Lloyd did it, the filmmakers were referencing Harold Lloyd. But there’s still a lot of story to get to that point.

After watching the movie:

Young Harold gets on the train from his small town to go to the big city and make his fortune, promising to send for his girl to come and marry him when he’s done so. Big city living is hard, and money is scarce, especially since Harold is buying expensive jewelry to send home for the purpose of keeping up a narrative that he’s doing better than he really is, working as a harried sales clerk at De Vore’s department store living paycheck to paycheck. One day, Harold runs into an old friend from back home who’s now working as a policeman, and tries to show off to his roommate Bill that he can get away with messing with policemen. Unfortunately, Harold and Bill then proceed to prank the wrong policeman, who chases Bill up the side of a building and swears to arrest him if he ever sees his face again. Meanwhile, Harold’s mother suggests to his girl that if he’s got enough money to be buying her jewelry, it’s not safe to leave him alone in the city. Trying to keep up the charade in person now, Harold needs something big to secure his fortune in a hurry. Perhaps a daredevil scaling the 12-story building, sponsored by De Vore’s?

Though the plot is thin and mostly moves from setup to setup while laying the foundation for the climb that makes the final act of the movie, it’s fairly cute in execution. Aside from the climb, the physical comedy isn’t of the remarkable spectacle that I’m used to from Keaton and Chaplin, but it’s entertaining, and often clever.

From the legend of the clock-hanging moment, I was a little let down by its significance in the moment. It’s just one more gag in the climbing sequence, and one or two other moments seemed more precarious. The drama of the moment has been rendered obsolete by iteration. Harold Lloyd dangling from the hand of a clock six or seven stories above a city street doesn’t thrill me because every homage since has been made more dire through increasingly modern techniques.

The rest of the movie is, while not a monumental work of cinema, as suggested by how much people remember the plot leading up to the climb, a charming romp that does what it sets out to do, and is a perfectly good way to pass 70-odd minutes. But the moment it’s remembered for doesn’t live up to the hype anymore. It stands out only in relation to what came before it, but most of what I know is what’s come after it. The legend is bigger than the film.

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