SAFETY LAST! (1923)

  • Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
  • Writers: Story by Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, and Tim Wheland, Titles by H.M. Walker
  • Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, and Westcott Clark
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video and AppleTV.

In his 1920s heyday, Harold Lloyd was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. However, his movies have not the had the longevity of some of his contemporaries, such as Chaplin and Keaton. One reason for this may be that, unlike the other two I just mentioned, he generally did not re-release his films in theaters in the ensuing years, or license them to television (he reportedly asked for more money than anyone was willing to pay him). When the BBC ran a documentary on him in the 1990s, they titled it The Third Genius. But when I watch him today, I connect with him on a more personal level than either Chaplin or Keaton. Each of them has their own strengths, but Lloyd feels, to me, the most like a “real person.”

Safety Last! is probably the most famous and most watched of Lloyd’s films today. It includes the much copied scene of Lloyd hanging from a clock face high above an urban street. In fact, the entire second half of the movie is Lloyd climbing up the side of a skyscraper. You wouldn’t think that would sustain a movie for that long, at least one without any explosions or the Rock, but it does work. He gets attacked by a dog. A pigeon lands on his head. A plank suddenly pokes out a window. It just keeps going.

The “plot” of Safety Last!, if you can call it that, involves Lloyd’s usual character, a striving, wannabe social climber in a straw hat and round glasses, trying to climb the 1920s version of the corporate ladder at a big department store, in order to impress his girlfriend and get enough money so she can move to the city. But his non-truths work a little too well, and she shows up early, leading him to come up with a plan to earn enough money to buy them a house by climbing up the side of a 12-story building. It makes (slightly) more sense in context.

Lloyd did almost all of the climbing and other stunts in this movie himself, despite missing two fingers on his left hand in a truly bizarre “photo shoot accident” involving fake bomb that wasn’t actually fake in 1919. From then on, he would wear a special “prosthetic glove” that is very hard to detect on screen, but definitely must have made it harder to hang on to ledges and things like that. Fortunately, he was never in quite as much peril as it looks on screen. To achieve the illusion that he was climbing higher and higher, the filmmakers built sets imitating the main building they used (the “International Savings & Exchange Bank Building” in Los Angeles) on top of the roofs of gradually taller buildings on the same street. So despite the primitive state of special effects at the time, the audience genuinely feels like Lloyd is dangling high above a busy city street.

Harold Lloyd tapped into a certain ethos at work in the “Roaring Twenties.” Rather than a tramp, he’s a go-getter. The comedy tends to come from him trying a little too hard, but he mostly gets away with things. In a modern movie where the plot centers around the main character lying to his girlfriend, there would be a scene where the girlfriend finds out the truth and gets mad. Here, she remains blissfully oblivious right to the end; the happy ending is that she never does find out, and he gets enough money to keep the lie going.

What really struck me, right away, about this movie is how strangely modern it feels in many ways. Lloyd doesn’t spend a lot of time overacting or mugging at the camera. There are plenty of times in this movie that it could just as easily be a modern imitation of a silent movie as an original. Lloyd himself feels to me like a modern transplant into this distant world. That extends for me to the jokes. It is obviously 100% a matter of personal taste, but I found myself laughing a lot more during Safety Last! than in other comparable silent comedies I’ve seen. Keaton, to a modern viewer, sometimes feels more like an action star than a comedian, but while Safety Last! has stunts and puts its main character in peril, it is never anything but a comedy. Take this scene, where Lloyd arrives late to work and tries to avoid his boss finding out about it. This is still funny 100 years later.

Old silent films have a certain elemental quality to them that, if done correctly, can give their stories a certain universality. As in many silent films, many of the main characters don’t have names. Lloyd plays “the Boy” while his girlfriend (Mildred Davis) is “the Girl.” As in that last scene, the early parts of Safety Last! are relatable to anyone who’s had an adversarial relationship with their boss or worked retail, and the later sections climbing the skyscraper work precisely because he isn’t the Rock. He is in over his head, and feels like he might fall at any moment, because he’s basically a regular guy desperately trying to look more confident than he actually is. Which is how we all feel, I think, no matter how confident we actually are.

Lloyd would make the transition from silents to talkies more successfully than many of his contemporaries, and had a few big hits even after switching to sound films. Shortly after filming Safety Last!, he married his co-star Mildred Davis, and unlike many Hollywood couples (even then) they stayed together until her death in 1969. Starting in 1926, they built “Greenacres,” an enormous, landscaped estate in Beverly Hills, which has been called “the most impressive movie star’s estate ever created.” The land it sits on is incredibly valuable today, and some of it has since been sold off for more housing, but the house and surrounding land still exist and are sometimes used for movie shoots, including for the original Westworld.

The image of Lloyd hanging off of a clockface in Safety Last! is one of the indelible images of early Hollywood, and has been much imitated through the years. Martin Scorsese shot an involved homage in Hugo, while Sylvester Stallone, of all people, ends up hanging from a clock in Oscar. Perhaps the most famous version involved Christoper Lloyd (no relation) ending up hanging from a clock while trying to get lighting to strike Marty McFly’s car in Back to the Future. But Harold Lloyd’s version is the most iconic, the original, and definitely the funniest. It was a nice surprise to find out that a movie that is literally 97 years old can still make me laugh the way it made audiences back then.

2 thoughts on “SAFETY LAST! (1923)

  1. Despite spotting from a mile away that he was going to have to climb the entire building himself, I still quite enjoyed him getting to each floor and the other guy being like “keep going up, I’ll meet you on the next floor!” and the overall shenanigans of getting to each floor. I also liked the end when the other guy was still running from the cop and was like “I’ll come back as soon as I shake him” far into the distance; I liked also that they used the smaller typography of that to show how he’s basically shouting into the wind as he runs away lol.

    Like

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