Saturday, February 08, 2014

Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! – the town boy, the city and a pyramid of gags

When I interviewed writer-director Kundan Shah for the Jaane bhi do Yaaro book a few years ago, he mentioned learning one of the principles of movie comedy while watching silent films at the FTII – how to “build a gag on a gag on a gag on a gag on a gag on a gag until you have a pyramid of gags”. Watching the 1923 Harold Lloyd-starrer Safety Last! (on a newly acquired Criterion disc-set), I thought again of those words. The film, with its multiple gag-pyramids – which add up to form one giant pyramid – is testament to how much thought, effort and practice can go into little moments that achieve nothing more “consequential” than making people laugh, or gape, or do both things at the same time.

I came to Safety Last! much later than I should have, but like so many others who haven’t seen the film I knew it by its most famous image: the scene where Lloyd (playing his stock character, the bespectacled everyman known here as The Boy as well as Harold) hangs for dear life from the face of a building clock. That scene is a cornerstone of the film’s biggest “pyramid” – circumstances having forced the hapless Harold to climb a 12-storey building for a publicity stunt – but there is so much more to Safety Last!. Watching it was a reminder that good silent-film comedy – with its sight gags, set-ups, incredible feats of timing, balletic physical movements, and minimal reliance on inter-titles – was one of the purest expressions of “pure cinema”. And that Keaton and Chaplin weren’t the only masters of those underrated arts.

In the best cases, even the inter-titles (which performed a functional role in most silent movies) would be used to clever effect. Consider the grim one that opens this film, and the shot that immediately follows it:

The camera then draws back to show two weeping women – the Boy’s mother and girlfriend – on the other side of the bars. A policeman and a priest enter the frame too, and the meaning of the scene appears clear from these elements – but of course it’s a set-up, the first of many fine sight gags: it turns out that they are all at the railway station, the “hangman’s noose” is really a loop used to attach mail for passing trains to pick up, and the Boy is only going to the big city for a job.

Once this has been revealed, it would be understandable if the film slowed down for a bit to establish the situation and the characters. Yet, after only a brief interlude – where Harold and his girlfriend Mildred (played by Lloyd’s real-life wife Mildred Davis) express their hopes for the future – the gags continue with a seamlessly executed scene where Harold, rushing to catch the train, picks up a pram with a baby in it instead of his suitcase. In itself, this is nothing special – a staple comedy-of-errors scene – but it is the necessary build-up to the final visual gag of this sequence. The baby’s mother catches up with him just as he is about to climb aboard, the mix-up is sorted out, but the distracted Harold doesn’t realise that the train has started moving away. Without looking, he stretches his arm out behind him …and ends up on a passing horse-cart instead. Discovering his mistake, he runs after the train and leaps on, by now a receding figure, but with enough presence of mind left to wave a second cheery goodbye. Fade out.

A description like this is no substitute for watching the two-minute scene play out, of course. It is a marvelous line of comic sketches, building on – and running into – one another: an opening shot that catches us off balance before allowing us a little chuckle of relief,
then the mix-up culminating in the agile physical comedy. And in between all this, an important “serious” moment – a close-up of the lovers before they part – that suggests what is at stake for the main character: what the Big City, with its tall buildings, office politics, expensive food, menacing clocks, and rich shoppers bullying overworked salespeople, will mean for him.

The film has many more such sequences, leading up to that super finale where Harold climbs the building unaided, in pursuit of a 1000 valuable dollars. This is one of the great ascents in any movie, right up there with King Kong – also a visitor from the boondocks trying to make sense of the city – climbing the Empire State Building 10 years after Safety Last! was made. (Or this opening scene from another great silent film, King Vidor’s The Crowd, where a camera “climbs” a skyscraper.) The gags in this last act literally build as Harold climbs from one floor to the next, facing a new challenge each time. It is heart-in-your-mouth thrilling, but – without detracting from the “fun” – it is also emotionally resonant for anyone who has come to sympathise with the Boy (easy to do; Lloyd is a natural and likable actor). Here is a scene that literalises the idea of the small-town boy as social climber. As critic Leonard Maltin and archivist Richard Correll point out in the Criterion commentary track, not only do the obstacles pile up in the final sequence, they get tougher and more outlandish. (A vagrant badminton net? A mouse running up his pants leg? A photo shoot somewhere on the 10th floor, involving a man with a gun?) 

Which means this could be an image of the upwardly mobile professional climbing the ranks in a cutthroat world, with the stakes constantly increasing: the danger of falling and losing everything becomes more pronounced the higher he goes. This lovely, light comedy – while consistently being a lovely, light comedy – is up there with any of the more serious-minded examinations of what can be lost and gained in the move from a “simpler” way of life to a more competitive one; a worthy companion piece to other silent classics of the time like Greed or Sunrise or The Crowd, which offered the big city as a place where you might lose your footing (or your soul).

I watched Safety Last! alone, on DVD, with a prior idea of what the film was about, and I was still deeply stirred by it (the orchestral soundtrack by Carl Davis from 1989 goes very well with the film too), so I can't imagine what it must have felt like to unprepared audiences in a theatre in the pre-CGI era people who had never been exposed to such stuntwork in a movie. Even today’s viewers might find their mouths hanging open when a dazed Harold swaggers about on the very edge of the roof after being struck by a weather-vane. No wonder the last shot – with the Boy back on firm ground and in the safety of the Girl’s arms – brings such a sense of release. It is a little like King Kong with a different ending, one where the ape and the blonde are reunited for ever on the rooftop. But is this a happy ending exactly? Even a thousand dollars may not go a very long way, and if the city is going to keep throwing up such challenges perhaps the young man may have been better off with his head in that noose after all.

P.S. two shots from films about a struggler in the city. A tram sequence in Safety Last! with hordes of men clinging to the outside of the vehicle and to each other, like bees to a hive:

And Kishore Kumar on a bus in Naukri 30 years later:


  1. Great classic - saw it on YouTube many years ago, unable to find any version.
    As enjoyable as Keaton's " General" and " navigator"

  2. I rewatched this great film just now. Hadn't revisited it after watching it the first time a few years back. I do keep revisiting the climax but not the film in its entirety.

    It's only this time around I realized what a terrific film this is. It's so much more than a silent comedy. It's an ode to American capitalism, an ode to the can-do spirit that suffused 20s America. No. This isn't an American where the lower class seeks welfare checks. This isn't an America where people want the government to subsidize their contraceptives. This is an America which is upwardly mobile. Where the working class seeks to emulate, imitate the successful, not envy them. An America where men care for their girls enough to slog insanely, tolerate workplace abuse and yet put on a smile. This is an America where the girls keep egging their boyfriends on unfairly and unforgivingly to be something, to do something.

    And that really fascinated me. And what's more. The making of the movie itself epitomizes that great American ideal - perfectibility. Perfectibility is something very very different from "perfection". It's the urge to keep pushing oneself to do something special that is so very fascinating. Lloyd had made such a fine, fine film uptil the last 5 mins. He could've stopped there and it would still be a great movie. But no. He didn't. He pushed himself for that one last hurrah. He struck himself with the weather vane. And no...He didn't stop there either. He brought the rope into the picture, tied it to his ankle and performed a pendulum swing. And no. He did't stop there either. He also ensured that the swing lands him in the arms of his beloved on the terrace! That's perfectibility. That's capitalism. That's enterprise. That's America for you!

  3. Shrikanth: as you probably know already, I don't share your rosy view that underprivileged people can just climb out of their situations by "emulating" or "imitating" the successful - or that there's something wrong with being envious or resentful, given the degree of random, meaningless unfairness in the world.

    But let's let that be for now. Am I right in assuming that you would be just as generous towards a great silent movie that was a condemnation of capitalism, or an ode to some other "ism"? At the very least, I hope you're not implying that Safety Last! is a great film primarily because it's an ode to capitalism, or the can-do spirit. If you are, I'd have to tell you that you're flat-out wrong, not just on one but on two counts.

  4. Jai: I've been commenting here for over 5 years now. I think you know me well enough to understand that I am not the kind of person who dismisses a movie as great as this because I don't approve of the political predilection of the filmmaker!

    I don't approve of the politics of Chaplin, Kazan, Brando and several others. Yet, these people are seminal artists. Important figures in the history of 20th century art. I am not the one to deny that.

    I was only providing my reading of this great silent film which struck me. It is a quintessentially American film - entertaining all the time, improvising all the time...