Safety Last! is likely the quintessential Harold Lloyd film, the one that seems to define his entire career, and the one that identifies him as chiefly a daredevil comedian. The iconic image of Lloyd dangling from the hand of a giant clock on a tall building has become a part of the American advertising lexicon.
It can be argued that Harold Lloyd made several features as good as Safety Last!, including Girl Shy (Fred Newmeyer, 1924), For Heaven’s Sake (Sam Taylor, 1926), and The Kid Brother (Ted Wilde, 1927). But the impact that Safety Last! had upon its initial release, and the reaction it continues to receive from 21st century audiences over 90 years later, makes it one of the best and most impactful motion pictures of its kind.
Harold Lloyd investigated daredevil comedy involving great heights as early as 1919 with his short comedy Look Out Below (Hal Roach). The following year he expanded his vision with the two-reeler High and Dizzy (Hal Roach), followed the next year by Never Weaken (Fred Newmeyer). By the time he was ready to explore how he could make a feature length movie based on the same sort of daredevil comedy, he was established as a leading star in American cinema.
The so-called Roaring 20s are often depicted as one of carefree exuberance, economic growth, exciting jazz, and youthful go-getters. At the movies, the trick western antics of Tom Mix, the magical comedy of Buster Keaton, the exotic romanticism of Rudolph Valentino, and the thrilling stunts of Douglas Fairbanks were inspiring to moviegoers. Harold Lloyd became a comedy star by playing the sort of youthful go-getter that exemplified the era, displaying a confidence and enthusiasm that captured the spirit of the prevailing culture.
In Safety Last! Harold goes off to the big city to make good, with the intention of sending for his girl when he achieves his goal. He has a difficult time doing so, toiling in a department store, but writing home with the impression that he is at management level. When his fiancé takes the train into the big city to visit him, he must quickly make good in order for her to continuing believing in him. Overhearing the actual store management wondering about a publicity stunt to attract customers, Harold suggests they hire his friend Bill (Bill Strother) to climb the building, a spectacle he had seen before when Bill was trying to elude police. The officer from whom Bill escaped reads about the stunt in the paper and shows up at the building. Bill must stay away from the officer, so Harold is forced to climb the building himself.
The opening shot of Safety Last! offers a good portent of the clever camera trickery that will allow for the film’s most dazzling scenes. Harold is shown behind bars, his girl and her mother on the other side crying for him. As the camera slowly irises out, we continue to perceive the scene as if Harold is in prison. There is even what seems to be a hangman’s noose in the background. The visual edits to a camera shooting from the other direction, on the other side of the bars, revealing the setting is a train station where Harold is about to leave for the big city. The “noose” is merely a trackside pickup hoop.
Using the opening visual to fool the viewer, Safety Last! is then does the same thing during the climbing sequence. Harold Lloyd told William Cahn:
We started the film with a one-story building and built our set right on the edge of the real building’s roof. We built it so that we could put platforms out and constructed the scaffolding on the side so that the cameraman could be up there and shoot down. In those days we didn’t want to divulge how we performed our stunts. We didn’t want to give away any of our techniques for fear of making the public disillusioned with the thrill of it all.1
The way the building sequence is shot utilises the negative space that frames Harold as the central image. Harold is on the ledge, and behind him we see the movement of the big city, with a busy car-filled street, and rows of businesses on either side. Cutting away to occasional shots of the crowd, the camera moves in closer as Harold, is beset by aggressive pigeons, onlookers applauding in the window, and the continued suspense of Bill, trying to meet him on upper floors to change places via the window, only to be pursued by police once again.
The narrative of Safety Last! includes all of the standard ingredients for a Harold Lloyd feature: the go-getter trying to make good, his struggle to do so, his attempt to put on a brave face for his loved ones, and is finding himself in a challenging situation that he must somehow overcome. And while this feature is known chiefly for its daredevil sequence, there is a great deal of clever visual comedy that leads up to it, including Harold attempting to board an overcrowded streetcar to avoid being late for work, or trying to maintain a large crowd of women in the store who are descending upon the bargain materials where he is in charge.
Along with being the quintessential Harold Lloyd comedy, Safety Last! is also one of the most significant American silent films. It not only defines the work of a top comedian and filmmaker, it also indicates how a movie made over 90 years ago can still evoke the same audience reaction as it had when initially released.
Safety Last! (1923 United States 70 minutes)
Prod Co: Hal Roach Studios. Dir: Fred Newmeyer, Sam Taylor. Scr: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, Jean C. Havez, Harold Lloyd, H.M. Walker. Phot: Walter Lundin. Ed: Thomas J. Crizer.
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke, Helen Gilmore, Sam Lufkin, Marie Mosquini, Anna Townsend, Sam Lufkin, Roy Brooks.
- William Cahn, Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (New York, NY: Meredith Press, 1964). ↩