This article is part of the See You in the Fall blogathon hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog.
If anyone ever tells you that classic movies are boring, then point them towards Safety Last! (1923). This silent comedy starring the great Harold Lloyd features one of the most riveting moments in movie history: Lloyd's harrowing climb up a Los Angeles building still elicits gasps and screams from audiences more than 90 years after it was made.
Safety Last!, which zips by at a breakneck 70 minutes, features Lloyd in his familiar role as the bespectacled, earnest Midwestern boy who is trying to make a name for himself in the big city. Lloyd is a lowly clerk at DeVore Department Store who dreams of bigger things than serving the demanding society ladies at the fabrics counter. When Lloyd's sweet fiancee (Lloyd's wife, Mildred Davis) wants to get married, Lloyd is in need of some quick cash, so he cooks up a scheme to have his roommate (Bill Strother) climb the DeVore building as a publicity stunt. However, complications arise, forcing Lloyd to climb the building himself.
|Safety Last! star Mildred Davis in Photoplay.|
Lloyd and his father moved to California in 1910 where Lloyd immediately began pursuing a career in movies. He didn't have much luck until he began working for independent producer and director Hal Roach. Roach made comedies so Lloyd gave up his dream of dramatic roles, and began making knockabout shorts that featured him as a Chaplinesque character called Lonesome Luke.
The Lonesome Luke comedies were hugely popular, especially with children, but the restless Lloyd soon tired of playing a character that he believed was a "poor imitation" of Chaplin. Instead, he developed the character that would become his signature role. "Harold," or the "glasses" character as Lloyd himself called it, was a bespectacled, boater-wearing striver, who looked and acted like many young men of the 1920's. Harold was polite to a fault -- Safety Last! gets a lot of laughs over Harold's desperate attempts to satisfy his demanding costumers -- but he was also ambitious. Safety Last! makes it very clear that Harold's goal is to make it into DeVore's front office; in fact, Harold's never-ending attempts to please his boss is one of the reasons he ends up dangling off a clock while several stories off the ground.
The Harold character was popular in all kinds of movies -- Lloyd played a rich businessman in Why Worry? (1923), and a timid twenty something in Grandma's Boy (1922) -- but it was the "thrill pictures" for which Lloyd became best known. Roach's studio was on a high bluff overlooking downtown Los Angeles, and Roach's stable of ever-inventive directors and actors soon exploited this for many skyscraper movies, including Lloyd's 1921 short Never Weaken (cameramen found that if you filmed at the edge of the bluff you could give the illusion of great height while the actors were only a few feet from the ground).
|A Swedish poster for Safety Last! (1923).|
There are quite a few stories about how the human fly scene in Safety Last! was made, but from my research here's how it was achieved. Lloyd himself does most of the climbing (Strother was the stuntman for the long shots), but Lloyd isn't climbing on an actual building. Instead, he is scaling a cleverly made facade that was placed on the rooftops of buildings; the cast and crew moved to progressively taller buildings to achieve the affect of climbing up several stories (the clip below from The Third Genius explains the technique). There were scaffolds for the camera and a mattress on the rooftop floors, but it's important to emphasize that Lloyd was still in a great deal of danger. When they used mannequins for a safety test, they fell off the building instead of onto the mattress, and Lloyd was further hampered because he had lost the thumb and forefinger of his right hand during a 1919 accident with a prop grenade.
Even under these stressful conditions, Lloyd gives a compelling and in many ways a deeply emotional performance in Safety Last. He possessed an exceptionally expressive face even for a silent movie actor, and a wide range of emotions, including fear, annoyance, exhaustion, and love, run across his face while he is climbing the building. Safety Last! inspired much of the derring-do in today's action movies, but those movies are not as compelling because the effects are largely computer-generated and the heroes are of the muscle-bound type. Harold, with his nerdy glasses and slim physique, is so much more relatable to average audiences. He is the everyman as Superman, and if he can get a big promotion, marry his best girl, and scale tall buildings at a single bound then there's hope for us all.
Safety Last! is available for streaming on Hulu. It also available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.