Although he was a comedic peer of Charlie Chaplin, and was more successful in terms of earnings (due in part to his prolific output), Harold Lloyd is not as well known a filmmaker from the silent era, which is surprising, because his work is still referenced. For example, a man dangling from a clock, as seen during the climatic climb in 'Safety Last!', is an image that has been used repeatedly throughout the years in movies like 'Back to the Future' and 'Hugo.' His notoriety will likely be increased because of 'Safety Last!' getting the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray.
The film tells the story of The Boy, later identified on his pay stub as Harold Lloyd, who hopes to make good in the big city by earning enough money that he can request The Girl (Mildred Davis) come be with him and get married. The audience first sees Harold behind bars, appearing as if he is about to make his way to the gallows, but it proves to be a visual gag at a train station before he departs his little town of Great Bend. It might also offer some commentary about the pursuit of money and marriage by the writers.
A few months have gone by, and Harold's dream has yet to be attained. Part of the problem is that he isn’t very bright and is too single-minded, which doesn’t make the character very appealing. He and his roommate, known as The Pal (Bill Strother), are struggling. They're behind on the rent (there's a great gag as they hide from the landlady), yet Harold hocks their phonograph in order to buy The Girl jewelry to keep up the charade that he's doing well.
Harold works a counter at De Vore Department Store, which is mined for many funny bits, such as sneaking in late and dealing with crazy customers. The Girl shows up, thinking he is doing well with all the jewelry he's sent, so he pretends to be the boss, which leads to amusing interactions with the rest of the staff. However, there is an odd part where she gets upset when he helps out a customer, as if a store's general manager wouldn't do that.
Speaking of the general manager, he's not happy with business and offers $1,000 to anyone who can bring in a lot of people. Earlier, the Pal was shown to be a phenomenal climber, so Harold comes up with the idea to get him to climb their 12-story building to draw crowds. He show a bit of smarts, or greed, by offering the Pal $500, which is still a lot of money in 1923. Complications ensue when a police officer looking for the Pal causes ill-equipped Harold to accept the role of the Human Fly.
While the story is rather simple and Harold's character is non-descript, the ascent up the building is what makes 'Safety Last!' a memorable work, and it's easy to see why the sequence was so thrilling for audiences of that era. Although it's tame by today's action standards and there's movie magic at work and safety precautions just out of frame, an element of danger is still created for the view, even after the special features reveal how they shot it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Safety Last!' (#662 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 20-page booklet containing "High-Flying Harold," an essay by author Ed Park.
The video has been given a 1080i/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.37:1. The liner notes state it has been "presented at a variable frame rate of approximately 22 frames per second to conform to film historian and restorer Kevin Brownlow's presentation and the Carl Davis score that accompanies it. This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a DTF Scanity film scanner from a 35mm nitrate print from Harold Lloyd's personal collection, made from the original negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' Phoenix was used for small dirt, jitter, flicker, and grain management".
There is a wide spectrum of hues across the gray scale, which contributes to great contrast. Blacks are deep, and as demonstrated with the ambulance and its drivers, whites are bright. A lot of grain can be seen throughout. The image offers a lot of details. The lines in the hands of The Girl reading the letter show how very fine the detail is.
No surprise at 90 years old to find some defects. On occasion, frames are missing which I first noticed when Harold helps crank-start a man's car. There's minor white specks and varying degrees of scratches. The latter got so bad at one point it resembled rain coming down. There is also what appears like water damage to the print that causes light flicker, seen in the wide shot of the stuntman climbing the building. There are no digital artifacts and no aliasing appeared on the brick buildings.
'Safety Last!' is accompanied by two musical options. Created in 1989, Carl Davis' orchestral score was synchronized and restored under his supervision for this release. It is available in LPCM 2.0. Organist Gaylord Carter's score was created in 1969 and is available in LPCM 1.0.
To no surprise, Davis' score sounds clean, and the instruments deliver a good dynamic range. In comparison, Carter's score show its age. The organ can't match the dynamics of an orchestra, causing the track to sound flatter. And yet, I found Carter's score to do a better job of capturing the mood of the scenes.
There's no danger involved in adding Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last' to your film library. It's a classic from the silent era, and with the outstanding collection of Special Features included, Criterion has made this a great buy for both his fans and those new to him. Recommended.