Judge Gordon Sullivan always wears a helmet when writing.
The comic genius of Harold Lloyd is eternal!
Charlie Chaplin was always a man of the people. The Tramp appeals to the everyday person, shares his or her struggles, and ultimately sticks it to the man. Buster Keaton is the intellectual's choice; he's smart, sensitive, and not afraid to be witty. For many people, these are the only two stars of silent comedy, but to this dynamic duo we can add a third: Harold Lloyd, the avatar of misfits and dreamers. Though his films could hold their own at the box office with the best of his silent contemporaries, Lloyd disappeared off the radar for most people once talkies became the rage, but thanks to DVD, he's gradually made a comeback. Part of that comeback includes the restoration of what many consider his masterpiece, Safety Last!. Now Criterion has brought us Safety Last! (Blu-ray), which is sure to please fans of Lloyd and help silent comedy fans discover (or rediscover) one of the form's best practitioners.
Facts of the Case
Harold Lloyd plays "The Boy," a clerk at a department store. He arranges for a friend to climb up the side of the building for publicity, but things don't go well and Lloyd must make the climb himself to get money and impress his small-town girlfriend (Mildred Davis, Dr. Jack).
It's hard to imagine why Harold Lloyd isn't as well-known as Chaplin and Keaton. Part of the problem is surely that he didn't make the transition to sound very well. Of course, neither did Chaplin or Keaton, but Lloyd had more unsuccessful talkies than either of them. Another part might be that he never got the same respect as his contemporaries because he never really directed any of his iconic features. Though he had a hand in uncredited writing for his films (including Safety Last!), he didn't have the high-profile "auteur" status of either Chaplin or Keaton; he wasn't master of his own destiny.
It's an especially curious fate given the talents on display in Safety Last. The film itself is a wonderful blend of high-concept stunts (like climbing the side of a building) and classic melodrama situations (like the small-town girlfriend coming to the city expecting Lloyd to be something other than a store clerk). With his glasses and boater, Lloyd even had a look to rival Chaplin's Tramp, but for whatever reason, he didn't have the stamina of Chaplin in terms of his career.
Hopefully that means that viewers will come to Safety Last! with few expectations. Those that do will find physical stunts that would shame many of today's productions, and optical effects that CGI creators could learn a thing or two from. Though physical comedy (especially silent physical comedy) isn't everyone's cup of tea, Lloyd is firing on all cylinders here, giving us a bumpkin character that we can sympathize with even as he does disastrous things.
Criterion has gone all out for its first Harold Lloyd release. The 1.37:1/1080i AVC-encoded transfer is excellent. The film is intended to be projected at twenty-two frames a second (instead of the standard twenty-four for contemporary sound film), which is probably why the transfer is interlaced rather than progressive. It doesn't make much of a difference practically. While watching the movie itself, interlacing artifacts are difficult to detect. Frame-by-frame advance will show some of them, but it's a small sacrifice to get the appropriate frame rate. The print used for the transfer is in surprisingly good condition for a film nearing its 100th birthday. There are some lines and scratches, but they're minimal for a film of this vintage. Otherwise, detail is very strong, with a nice treatment of grain. Contrast is stable and well-balanced throughout. Viewers get two lossless audio options. The first is a score by Carl Davis with full orchestra and the second is an organ-centric one by Gaylord Carter. They both sound great as far as recording goes, with plenty of dynamic range and clarity. Since neither really "belongs" with the film it's down to viewer preference. I would guess most people are going to prefer the more dynamic orchestral score because of its variety.
Extras start with a commentary ported over from the previous New Line edition of the film. It features Leonard Maltin and an archivist (and director in his own right) Richard Correll. The pair spend much of the track appreciating the film, but things only really get going when talking about the afterlife of the film, especially its restoration. The film also features a short (17 minute) introduction by Lloyd granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd which condenses much of the historical info surrounding the film into a few well-chosen anecdotes. Lloyd fans will also be pleased that three of his shorts—"Taking a Chance," "Young Mr. Jazz," and "His Royal Slyness"—have been included, with optional commentary by Correll again along with writer John Bengston. Another treat is "Harold Lloyd, the Third Genius," a 108-minute made-for-TV documentary about the actor's life. It's narrated by director Lindsay Anderson and combines interviews with colleagues, archival footage, clips from his films, and even home movies to cover most of Lloyds remarkable career. New for this edition is an interview with Carl Davis about his score and a featurette on how the locations and the film's stunts are so closely tied together. The usual Criterion booklet provides a nice introductory essay by Ed Park.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps the biggest flaw with this Criterion release is that it doesn't come with a built-in audience. Silent comedy almost always plays better when appreciated with a larger group, which at least partly explains why Safety Last! has often been shown at revivals and the like. Obviously no kind of film is going to appeal to everyone, but for those who haven't been able to get into silent comedy, try getting a group of friends together to watch Safety Last! together and you might find it's a different experience.
This is classic silent-era comedy. Though perhaps not as well-known as Modern Times or Sherlock Jr., Safety Last shows a brilliant physical comedian at the height of his powers doing something he obviously loved. That love obviously spilled over to the folks at Criterion who have provided an amazing transfer along with some essential supplements that make it easy to put Safety Last first.
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