If you were to poll cinephiles, asking them about their favorite silent comedians, half would say Charlie Chaplin, with the others firmly on the side of legend Buster Keaton. Sadly, one name would rarely, if ever, crop up into that conversation, that being Harold Lloyd. Forgotten by many, left off to the side by others, Lloyd has become known as the “third genius” by silent film fans, and nothing more than a name for the rest of popular culture.
However, that is about to change, and for good reason, as he may very well be the greatest of all silent film stars.
This week sees the release of Criterion’s first home video release from the Lloyd canon, and it’s one hell of a way to start. Giving the dense, “film school in a box” treatment that they do for someone like Chaplin to Lloyd, the company has released a new Blu-ray and DVD of Lloyd’s masterpiece, Safety Last, and it may be their best release so far this year.
Safety Last has an easy set up, as do most of Lloyd’s films. Taking on the role of a small town fish in a big city pond, Lloyd plays a man named Harold who, after taking on a job as a clerk at a department store, comes up with a hell of an idea. What follows is a fantastically hilarious comedy that is as inventive in its gags as it is thrilling in its set pieces. What follows is simply one of the greatest comedies ever made.
Best known for the major set piece from which this release gets its iconic cover shot, Safety Last is the cinematic manifestation of everything great about the cinema of Harold Lloyd. From the very opening of the picture, one is thrust into a world of comedy that is as subtle and creative as it is perfectly timed and choreographed. Basing most of his gags almost entirely on their timing, the film is a master class in that concept, almost feeling like a great ballet as much as it is a silent comedy. There are a handful of gags here (ranging from the opening train gag that starts the picture off or the brilliant coat hanger gag that follows), that are so creative and yet so effortless in their execution that it is truly something of a wonder.
Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, the filmmakers are often neglected when talking about these types of pictures, but this is as visually entrancing a picture as you’ll see from this time period. Most of Lloyd’s pictures were forward thinking in their cinematic voice, and this film especially. While the major set piece here is an absolute feat of cinema that is rarely out done, there are other bits and flourishes here that turn this into a really breathtaking bit of cinema. It’s impossible to note one gag as better than the rest, and that’s attributed both to Lloyd’s perfect timing, as well as the fantastic work behind the camera from Newmeyer and Taylor.
Where does Lloyd, and particularly this film, stand within the annals of silent comedic cinema however? This being Lloyd’s most talked about picture, it feels in many ways as his definitive film. Heartfelt, visually forward thinking and without a mean bone in its body, Lloyd is, compared to names like Keaton and Chaplin, likely the most relatable. Truly the everyman of silent comedy, Lloyd’s characters rarely have greater issues other than overcoming the odds to get the girl, but never find themselves in emotional situations that aren’t relatable to the masses. Where Keaton became known for his stone faced leads and Chaplin went from Tramp to Dictator, Lloyd stood as the man from the small town who was, at the time, coming to the big city in droves. The easy going nature isn’t something truly found within the likes of Keaton or Chaplin, so while he may feel slight in comparison to those two, his films are equally as entrancing, if only due to the pure, from the gut laughs that they often foster in the viewer. Safety Last is that definitive picture.
Rewarding on multiple viewings, Safety Last is an absolute masterpiece, one of the greatest film comedies ever made. With gut busting laughs coming from seemingly effort-free gags and an incredibly relatable thespian at its center, it’s just a wonder to watch, and thankfully, Criterion has allowed us to see this in as good quality as it has ever been in.
Criterion’s transfer for this film is reference quality. Proof that Blu-ray was made for silent films, the audio and visual quality here is startling. The film has new life breathed into it by the company, who make this new 2k transfer look like the film was made yesterday. Pairing it with two really great scores and a must-listen commentary with Leonard Maltin and archivist Richard Correll helps, and that’s just the tip of this film’s dense iceberg. The release includes an introduction from Lloyd’s granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd, an extremely insightful documentary looking at his life and work entitled Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, that adds such great context to this release. Toss in a documentary looking at the film’s effects work, as well as three other shorts from Lloyd, and you have possibly Criterion’s best release from the first half of 2013.
While he may not be the voice behind as many masterpieces as people like Keaton and Chaplin (both of whom may very well be his superiors), Lloyd and Safety Last are firmly some of comedy’s greatest entities. Given proper treatment from Criterion, hopefully this new Blu-ray will once again shine light on one of the greatest comedic works ever made, the thrilling Safety Last.