There are two certainties in the world of Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST!: Death and suits. For what is, on its surface, a sweet, endearing and inoffensive rom-com, there are significantly dark undertones present, which put forth a bleak critique of modern life. The most iconic shot of this classic film is of Lloyd hanging; nine stories up, from the hand of a clock, at any moment about to fall to his certain death. And if that image alone isn’t enough to give you a serious case of vertigo, you should know Lloyd had blown his right thumb and index finger to smithereens a few years earlier after an on-set accident involving a bomb prop (he wears a flesh-colored glove to cover up his misplaced digits). Lloyd is not just hanging on for dear life; he’s doing it with only one good hand.
So while SAFETY LAST! is a grand old time at the cineplex, perhaps you’ll agree there’s a little more going on beneath its skin than merely a boy and his best gal getting together.
* * *
Death abounds through the movie as time marches forward. We barely need Lloyd’s precipitous climb and enmeshment within the gears of a clock to tell us that. Right from the start we’re attending Lloyd’s hanging. As the opening scene plays out we learn that all is indeed well, but what a foreboding way to start a film–Lloyd behind bars with his noose in the background. This sort of imagery of a death by hanging recurs throughout the film.
Lloyd’s perilous ascent of the department store culminates with him being hung upside down from a rope in what I can only describe as a reconfiguration of Dante’s inversion when climbing Satan’s body to escape Hell: “my guide, with heavy strain and rugged work, reversed his head to where his legs had been … I thought that we were going back to Hell” (Inf. XXXIV:78-81).
But wait! There’s more! I would be remiss not to mention the theory of a former professor of mine, Michael Dow at Northeastern University, who suggested that a death by hanging is implicit in Mildred’s apparitional head appearing within the lavalier chain. Moreover, after Lloyd spends every last dime to buy the chain for her, he leaves the store and tightens his belt as if it is yet another noose.
There are a number of other moments scattered throughout the film where Lloyd is metaphorically killed (most notably when he’s carted off in an ambulance and when he is shot in the face), but let’s cut to the heart of the matter. The film fixates on death as a means to critique modernity and to reveal something about modern anxiety.
Lloyd is a country boy who comes to the city and is all but devoured by the march of time that leads him ever onward towards death. For as much as he tries to resist the machined society around him, he is always forced to keep climbing.
The film emphasizes clothing as a means to critique the societal machinations of the city. We frequently find that Lloyd disappears into seas of fabric. He is at one point accidently driven off in the back of a laundry truck. He has to hang from a coat hook to dodge his landlady. He has to pretend to be a mannequin to sneak into work.
Not only is Lloyd in extreme danger of losing his life in the city, he has already lost his identity. His entire relationship is built on a lie about his occupation–who he is. He is the proverbial “suit,” just trying to get a space with the others on the trolley: chewed out by his boss when he’s not dressed just so, torn limb from limb by a mass of frenzied consumers, or cheered on by a joyous crowd that demands with unbendable will that he climb the building towards a 9 to 5, towards marriage, towards everything prescribed as “normal”.
This is a comedy where everyone laughs except for Harold Lloyd.
* * *
Ninety years later, this film still speaks to our modern anxieties. Aren’t we all worried about getting swept up in an endless climb towards a notion of prescribed “success”? Don’t we adore zombie movies these days because, like Lloyd, we perceive mindless consumption all around us? Don’t we play out our fantasies of apocalypses on the silver screen because a part of us wants to just get the hell away from modern life? Don’t we all want to escape to worlds that are far, far away from the tyranny of the looming and horrible clock that strikes with a cool precision letting you know exactly how late for work you are, exactly when your lunch break is over?
Okay, okay, I know I’m being overly dramatic. My point is, SAFETY LAST! has a lot to say about 1920s modernity that is still relevant today. Our movies today are coping with the same anxieties as Lloyd, just in a different form.
I don’t have a solution to these sorts of problems (short of a mass exodus to Great Bend, which really wouldn’t solve much). The beauty and timelessness of this movie provides a window through which we can observe the rat race of modern life, so that, perhaps, we can find an opportunity to come in off the ledge.