"Safety Last!" - Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor (1923)

Harold Lloyd has always been considered, along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to be one of the three iconic giants of the silent screen era.  Interestingly, all three of them invariably produced, not dramas or exciting adventures but, instead, exhilarating comedies depicting a lovable underdog in pursuit of the American Dream.  Today, though, Lloyd is the least remembered of this awesome threesome.  In fact, although Lloyd was a prolific and highly successful performer during much of the silent period, he is known today primarily for just one masterwork, Safety Last! (1923).   But that one is a gem [1].

Note that Lloyd, unlike Chaplin and Keaton, was not listed as a film director (Safety Last! was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor); but his unique screen persona placed a singular stamp on all his films and earned him the right to be called an auteur.  In this connection it is worth comparing the screen personae of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.  All three were underdogs chasing the American Dream, but they represented three slightly different stances with respect to epic uphill struggles to succeed:
  • Charlie Chaplin was always “The Tramp”, an insouciant guttersnipe who, despite his impoverished circumstances, was often naughtily cheeky towards those lording it over him.  The dramatic contexts of his films had an emphasis on The Tramp’s low social status and his struggles against seemingly socially superior bullies.
  • Buster Keaton was usually a dogged and unflappably determined innocent who tenaciously struggled against seemingly overwhelming obstacles.  He was upright, straightforward, and unsophisticated – almost like a bumpkin – and less crafty than the Chaplin character. The narrative context of his struggles was often more physical than social, although this physical visual context sometimes bordered on the surreal.
  • Harold Lloyd, in contrast to the other two, was more hopeful, in a naive Boy Scout Tenderfoot sort of way.  He was more conventional and sociable than the other two, but we still see him on the bottom rung of whatever ladder he is climbing. He, like the Keaton character, was innocent, but he foolishly fancied himself to be an All-American, Horatio-Alger-style hero.  His struggles took place in a mixed context featuring both physical and social obstacles.
All three of them were amazingly physically dexterous in their purely visual presentation of comic scenes, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could match Lloyd’s acrobatic movements, which had the artistry of a free-form ballet dancer.

In Safety Last!, the bespectacled Lloyd plays an earnest young man from a small town who comes to the big city hoping to make his fortune.  The first three-quarters of the film comically depict the young man’s various misadventures trying to succeed.  But what elevates Safety Last! into the pantheon of movie classics is the spectacular building-scaling scene that transpires over the film’s final twenty minutes.  Nevertheless, there is an overall narrative that leads up to that illustrious sequence, and it does have its own merits.

1.  Working in the Department Store
Act 1 establishes the situation and goal of the main character.  In the opening sequence we see “The Boy” (played by Harold Lloyd) at the train station of his small town, Great Bend, and about to depart for the big city.  He confidently promises to his mother and his fiancé (Mildred Davis), aka “The Girl”, who are there to see him off, that he will send for his sweetheart and marry her just as soon as he has made some big money.  Then the scene shifts to the big city several months later where The Boy is shown sharing a flat with his friend Bill (Bill Strother), aka “The Pal”, and living in impecunious circumstances.  The Boy hasn’t gotten anywhere with his plans to make it big. The Boy works as a lowly salesman in a large department store, and Bill works as a skyscraper construction worker, but the two of them don’t even have enough money to keep up with their $7 dollars-per-week rent.  Nevertheless, The Boy writes daily letters to The Girl falsely assuring her that he is making it big.

Then there are various humorous scenes showing The Boy’s harried salesperson work conditions in the De Vore Department Store and his struggles to avoid getting fired by his pompous and domineering floor manager, Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke).

2.  A New Problem
In Act 2 a couple of important events occur that will impact what happens later.  The Boy runs into an old friend on the street who is now working as a cop.  Attempting to show off his insider status with the police in front of Bill, The Boy goads Bill into giving his old hometown friend an aggressive shove.  But the prank is botched when Bill gives the shove to  the wrong cop (Noah Young), aka “The Law”, who becomes incensed and tries to collar Bill. Bill manages to get away for the moment by skilfully scaling a building wall which the angry cop cannot climb.  The cop vows to arrest Bill the next time he sees him.

Meanwhile The Girl back in Great Bend is so impressed with The Boy’s boastful claims of success that she decides to go the big city and surprise him with a visit.

3.  Showing off to The Girl
When The Girl arrives at the department store and surprises The Boy, she assumes he is the store’s manager, and he frantically struggles to keep up with that pretense.   There follows a sequence of carefully choreographed antics featuring The Boy’s efforts to just barely maintain the facade that he is indeed the general manager of the store.  This is all the more difficult due to the stern overseeing eye of the floorwalker Mr. Stubbs.  But The Boy manages to keep things going, for the moment, even sneaking in a fake reprimand of Stubbs by momentarily masquerading as the real general manager.

Finally, The Boy learns that the real general manager is willing to pay $1,000 to anyone in their organization who can mount an event that will attract a mass of customers to the department store.  The Boy, having seen his pal Bill climb up the side of a building, hits on the idea of staging a publicized daredevil event of Bill climbing up the outside of 12-story De Vore Department Store building.  If he can pull it off, The Boy will have secured his fortune.  The event is duly advertised in the daily newspaper, and a large crowd of onlookers assembles around the store.  But included among those assembled is The Law, the disgruntled cop who suspects the unnamed building climber is Bill, whom he has vowed to arrest.  Everything is set for the dramatic closing act.

4.  The Climb
Although the experienced building scaler Bill is supposed to make the climb, the threatening presence of The Law forces The Boy to commence the ascent himself.  Their hastily formulated plan is for The Boy to somehow climb up one floor of the building, at which point Bill, who will be waiting for him on the second floor, will surreptitiously assume The Boy’s identity by donning The Boy’s straw hat and horned-rim glasses and then continue the ascent from there.  But the materialization of this plan is continuously delayed, floor by floor, as the suspicious cop keeps hounding Bill and preventing him from making the clothing swap.

So The Boy keeps going, barely managing to hold onto the bricks protruding from the building wall.  This is the breathtaking sequence that everyone remembers.  To make things worse, all sorts of unexpected hindrances bedevil him all along the way up. At one point some food droppings out of an upper-level window land on his shoulders and attract a flock of aggressive pigeons.  On another occasion he becomes entangled with a tennis net that has fallen out of a window.  And when he is lying for a moment on a ledge, a mouse crawls up his pant leg and makes him shiver uncontrollably.

The continual presentation of all these perilous moments of imminent existential annihilation in Safety Last! have a cumulative effect on the viewer, perhaps especially for those like me who have an innate fear of heights.  The relentless exposure not just to the possibilities of death but to the opportunities of self-obliteration when looking over a precipice provide a nonverbal and intuitive feeling for the preciousness of each moment of life, itself.  This is not something that occurs to the rational mind, but is more like a Zen Buddhist moment of satori [2].  Perhaps we are all unknowingly like “The Boy” in this film and almost blithely unaware of how near the advent of non-existence is to us at every moment.  We must fully and positively engage in this world for every moment we are able to live in it.  So these alarming moments in a supposedly comic film may give to Safety Last! almost a spiritual dimension for some viewers.

Of course the most memorable moment, and perhaps the most famous image of the silent era, comes when The Boy desperately hangs by his hands from the minute-hand of a building clock.  All of these occurrences are brilliantly filmed, and one can’t help wondering how they managed to do it in the age before special effects.

In fact reading about some of the production details draws even more amazement [3].  Lloyd performed essentially all the shots without a stunt man, and he was exactly as high up above the street as he appeared on film.  They did have a scaffolding platform for safety two or three floors below him and just out of camera range. But when they one time performed a test of a fall with a dummy, the dummy bounced off the platform and fell to the street below. And to top it off, Lloyd was handicapped by having had the thumb and forefinger of his right hand blown off in an accident a year or so earlier (this handicap is masked in the film by a glove that Lloyd wore).

This whole spectacular climbing sequence is not only the highlight of the film, it was the basis  for making of the film in the first place.  Lloyd had seen Bill Strother, known as “The Human Spider”, climb the outside of a building in Los Angeles as a publicity stunt and immediately proposed making a film with Strother (who was not an actor but who plays the role of Bill, The Pal, in the film).  In fact they shot the last act of the film first, before even having a full story worked out for the preceding acts [3].

It all works.  And it is not only the brilliant performance of Harold Lloyd that makes the film outstanding. The camera work and continuity editing are extraordinarily well done throughout the film, making it all fit together as an almost seamless narrative.  There is even a well-executed backward tracking shot in the film that show Lloyd being followed by the suspicious cop.

In the end The Boy makes it to the top of the building and gets his prize.  The Girl is waiting for him, and they passionately embrace at the close of the film.  Lloyd got his prize at the end in real life, too – he married his co-star, Mildred Davis, in early 1923 after the shooting of Safety Last! was complete.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Safety Last”, RogerEbert.com, (3 July 2005).   
  2. Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, (1959). 
  3. Richard W. Bann, “Safety Last”, National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress, (n.d.).    

No comments: