Safety Last! is a romp of a comedy–and, in some ways, an action film–weighed down by a love interest who… well, to quote Arrested Development: “Her?” It’s probably not Mildred Davis’s fault that her Girl comes across as going past naivete and straight into wide-eyed, charmless denseness, as the script does her no favors, but the characters weighs the movie down. I wind up understanding how Harold Lloyd’s Boy feels the pressure to lie to her about his accomplishments–she has no realistic understanding of how jobs work–more than I sympathize with her for being lied to. In the end, it feels like the Boy labors and risks his life to impress and marry a Girl who is going to go straight back to not understanding that life won’t always have a fairy tale ending of good fortune meted out to the brave and kindhearted.
But if the romance falls flat for me, the comedy definitely succeeds, with some great, grounded gags involving Lloyd’s work at a department store counter (selling fabric) and some excellent physical stunts. When the story gets to the point of Lloyd stuck in a deal to climb up the side of his twelve-story department store–since his capable friend, who’d originally been set to do it, is being chased through the building by a policeman (periodically he meets Lloyd at a window, always to promise him he’ll be able to take over just one more floor up)–and poor Lloyd is getting attacked by pigeons and left to dangle off the hands of a clock, this is a delight. The film takes a real pleasure in “the little guy” getting away with something, and it knows that Lloyd pulling something off is often even more satisfying if we’ve had a chance to see him flail around haplessly first. And he flails very well. With Keaton, you can assume competence; with Chaplin, you can assume luck. Lloyd dodges both assumptions here, increasing the tension via some uncertainty and some palpable sweat on his brow.
Safety Last is available on HBO Max.