Scene Analysis: Safety Last! (1923)

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Mildred Davis as "The Girl" and Harold Lloyd as "The Boy"

You've heard of Charlie Chaplin and you've heard of Buster Keaton, but have you heard of Harold Lloyd? Harold Lloyd ranks alongside these household names as one of the most influential comedians of the silent era. After having seen one of his films for the first time this year, Safety Last! (1923), I can easily say its one of my favourite films. Now, don't be like I was and decide that silent film may not be worth your time because its an ancient version of an art we've only just come to 'perfect'. I wasn't very receptive to silent film at first and while its true you can find some pretty terrible silent films, you can also find some gems (check out this beautiful French film, Ménilmontant from 1926). Safety Last! is one of those gems. Harold Lloyd’s slapstick, Safety Last! emerged in the 1920’s while America was in the midst of a dramatic technological revolution. The adoption of certain technological novelties such as the internal combustion engine and the spread of electrification to households led to a rise in productivity and improved the economic welfare of many Americans. In Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd plays a character simply named "The Boy", who has not been able to keep up with and is not benefiting from this modern age yet feels the societal pressure to earn and spend more than he has. Although he has very little money and certainly not enough to spend on frivolous presents for his girlfriend, the pressures of maintaining an image of strong economic standing appears more important than necessary everyday expenditures. In a way, the Boy is desperately trying to keep up with the twentieth century and the social and technological revolutions that come with it. 
Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!


The most prolific example of this thought in action is in the Boy’s death defying scaling of the department store and at its climax, clinging to life, supported by the hands of a clock. As the clock hands tick and the Boy is in imminent danger of falling, it is apparent that all his efforts thus far trying to prove himself have literally come down to a battle against technology and time. With the Boy’s eventual success, in comparison with the other great slapstick comedians of the time, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd’s outcome offers a much more optimistic outlook of life for the common man. Whereas Chaplin’s films for example were much more realistic in grounding his circumstances in reality, Lloyd offered a more fantastical view, suggesting that the common man can accomplish anything, where Chaplin’s characters continually faced defeat. It is no surprise then that when it came to the box office, Harold Lloyd’s films raked in the most profit. In showing a real struggle in an idealistic setting and subsequently allowing for the victory of the common man over such a massive event as technological dominance, Lloyd presents an appealing and relatable vision of triumph.     

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