Safety Last

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: Safety Last!

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: A small-town guy moves to the big city, wanting to make enough money so he can afford to send for his girlfriend to join him there so the two can be married. Various hijinks and miscommunications ensue, and the whole thing ends with an iconic scene involving the guy hanging from the hands of a clock.

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Your film diet has probably changed a lot during the pandemic. Maybe you’ve used this time to dive back into nostalgic favorites, catch up with titles you’ve never seen, or explore unfamiliar genres. I’ve done a mix of all three, and one of the best “new to me” discoveries I’ve made so far is the 1923 silent film Safety Last!, written by and starring Harold Lloyd.

I am not a silent film scholar, but Safety Last! is widely considered to be one of the best entries in that medium, and it’s very easy to see why. The film is lean and economical, zooming through its 73 minute runtime without a single wasted minute. Absolutely everything is designed for maximum entertainment, whether it’s little moments (such as a visual gag in which Lloyd and his roommate hide inside big jackets by hanging themselves on hooks in their apartment to hide from their landlady) or story points which all perfectly build on top of each other, leading to the unlikely moment when the protagonist finds himself comically out of his element during the film’s dizzying climax.

And wow, that climax. It doesn’t generate quite the same dripping palm-sweat sensation as watching the real-life climb in Free Solo, but seeing Lloyd scale that building is still a visceral, riveting experience. For those who are curious, here’s how the scene was achieved:

A creative workaround like that would be pretty damn impressive for today’s standards, let alone for 1923. (For context, that’s the same year Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Studios were founded.)

Shout-out to directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, who are often overlooked in the conversation surrounding this movie since Lloyd was clearly the face of it, and to the movie’s fun, jaunty score. With a dash of physicality from a Buster Keaton joint and a pinch of the wit from a Charlie Chaplin movie, Safety Last! is not only an instant favorite silent film, but it’s one of the most recommendable movies, period, that I’ve ever seen.

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