Safety Last! (1923, dirs. Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor)


Anyone who’s paid any attention at all to the silent era of movies will have seen at least one of the most famous silent-movie stunts — Harold Lloyd, seemingly halfway up climbing the side of a building, hanging on for dear life as he grabs hold of a giant clock after putting a foot wrong. Suddenly, the clock face comes partially undone, leaving him hanging high over a busy street. This is of course from one of Lloyd’s full-length features, Safety Last!, and it is a gem — but only one of the amazing stunts in the film, which is also quite funny.

Lloyd is often thought of last when one tries to name the giants of silent-era comedy, behind Chaplin and Keaton, but for my money he’s actually the most versatile of the bunch. While Chaplin almost always played a tramp in his silents, and Keaton forever plays a stone-faced version of the unluckiest man alive, Lloyd is often the sunny embodiement of American Exceptionalism, resiliently cheerful and sure that everything is going to work out despite the craziest things happened to him, and indeed that blind faith carries him through.

In Safety Last!, Lloyd opens the film looking like he’s in potentially fatal trouble — in jail and perhaps saying his goodbyes to his loved ones, with a hangman’s noose in the foreground. The set changes slightly, and we see in fact that noose was on a mail peg designed to allow the train to deliver a bag of parcels without stopping, and Lloyd was just a small-town young man on his way to the big city to make his mark.

He was doing this to secure his relationship to his intended bride (played by real-life wife Mildred Davis), by ensuring he has a career that can support a household and eventual family. The earnestness just radiates off Lloyd’s can-do attitude and beaming, positive face, but in fact like any such fellow he has to start small — sharing a room with a friend, working hard, and not quite catching the American Dream somehow … this film was only a few years prior to the start of the Great Depression, but somehow foreshadowed that all was not well with the game of “work your way to success.”

In another tell-tale America-of-the-20s trait, he puffs up his level of success to impress his girl, which in turn means he ends up spending most of his meagre paycheque on gifts he sends to her … skipping meals, hiding from the landlady, and making other sacrifices. In one scene, he ponders the cost of another gift while also staring at an advert for a “businessman’s lunch” (which costs 50¢ … you should see this film just to marvel at the prices of things!), and as he pushes himself to sacrifice for his bride-to-be, his minds “disappears” each of the five plates that were included in that luncheon. You can feel Lloyd’s hunger pangs.

As you might expect, the girl gets the idea to come visit and surprise him, and on very short notice he has to come up with ways to convince her he is as successful as he has boasted, hiding his lowly “real life.” While to modern audiences this thin plot moves along fairly slowly, there are always impressive stunts and action sequences (just him getting to the office is a great section of pratfalls and dangerous gambles) to fill the time until the next plot point.

Lloyd pays off a colleague not to reveal that he’s not the manager and this isn’t his office.

Mostly, Lloyd’s character (who was known as the “glasses man” in his earlier work, but he finally identifies the character as being himself — Harold Lloyd — on a business card, suggesting some real-life incidents are incorporated into the tale) just combines his incredible physicality with on-screen great luck in avoiding being killed or decapitated as would happen to the rest of us if we tried these stunts. Yes, there were stuntmen used and some clever camera trickery for the finale, but Lloyd is visibly on-screen for a number of these feats and it adds richly to the action.

In a panic over being found out as not the success he portrayed to his girl, he overhears the owner of the store wishing for a big publicity stunt and, thinking of his friend “Limpy” (the incredible Bill Strother, both a supporting character and sometimes Lloyd’s double for steeplejack and stunt sequences) who loves climbing buildings, offers a sure-fire plan to draw a crowd: he’ll climb to the top of the very tall department store building!

In an earlier sequence that sets up the climax of the film, Lloyd recognises a policeman in town as being an old buddy from their youth, and goads Limpy into helping him play a knock-down gag on the copper. But he doesn’t see his friend go inside and be replaced with a different cop, so when the prank is successful the furious flatfoot swears revenge on Limpy (Lloyd having quickly escaped). This sets up the dilemma that sees Limpy unable to scale the building in Lloyd’s stead (he was going to just take Lloyd’s glasses, hat and coat to fool the bosses), and Lloyd having to be coached into doing the climbing himself as the cop continues to chase Limpy around the store.

The sub-plot that sets up the finale

Of course, Lloyd doesn’t think he can do it, but Limpy reassures him that he’ll ditch the mad cop and take his place if he just climbs up a couple of floors. Well, the cop doesn’t give up that easily, and Limpy swings by a window every floor to encourage Lloyd to climb just another floor or two … until finally Lloyd has barely survived climbing up the entire building, reaping the entire $1,000 reward* for himself into the bargain, thus securing his forthcoming marriage.

*Lloyd is shown to be netting $15 every two weeks — remember this is 1923 — so a grand is like three years of wages in a single day, and of course it is implied he’ll be promoted as well.

Before the big climb and during it, there are numerous funny moments and smaller-scale stunts to keep things moving along, but the film — as ingenious and humourous as it is — still feels like the kind of plot that would sustain a film only half its one hour 13 minute runtime, and just throws in a lot of sequences that feel like (clever) padding.

Lloyd’s Not-Of-London … his actual position at the store.

That said, it’s very worth seeing. The incredibly clever way they did the climatic climbing sequences really make it easy to believe he’s hanging by a thread incredibly high up, but it wasn’t quite like that (you’ll have to guess how they did it in the silent era without the modern safety constraints and optical techniques such things would have today, I’m not telling).

I will however say that there’s a short Criterion Channel documentary made much later that reveals the secrets of Safety Last called Safety Last: Location and Effects that will spill the beans if you can’t figure it out yourself.

Throw in some incredibly well-trained pigeons (yes, really), a truly hilarious one-line cameo by a little old lady, and Lloyd’s amazing physical comedy, and you end up splitting your time between chuckling and staring wide-eyed at how he’s going to get out of this new bit of trouble.

If you’ve only seen sequences or still images from the film, I’d encourage you to watch the whole thing. Of course it was a big hit with audiences in its day, but in some ways it still embodies some uniquely American ideas about work-life balance, exploitative capitalism, and risk-reward philosophies that stand up today. Despite these subtle but weighty themes, it’s a feel-good film that everyone in the family will enjoy. Still!