IMDB #234 Safety Last!

I am on a roll today. We move now to the prohibition era, 1923, with the silent comedy classic Safety Last! Zaniness will ensue.

The Key Players:

Produced by Hal Roach Studios, this film was a real collaborative effort, directed by two men (Sam Taylor and Fred Newmeyer) and written by four.

But it’s a Harold Lloyd film, a silent comedy legend that has somehow become third man on the totem pole behind Chaplin and Keaton, despite no failure to match either for productivity or originality of vision. The highest paid film-performer of the 20’s (as he released 12 features to Chaplin’s 3), he was famous for his “Glasses Character,” a pale-faced go-getter referred to as “Harold” or “The Boy” in inter-titles.

Lloyd’s go-to co-star (and second wife) Mildred Davis co-stars as “The Girl,” our plucky young hero’s sweetheart. Finally, Bill Strother, a real life Human Fly type, plays Lloyd’s roommate for reasons that will become clear.

The Story:

Young Harold we meet at the train station, saying goodbye to Mildred and her mother (though initially a sight gag makes it look like he’s off to the gallows). He’s heading to the big city to seek his fortune, and after nearly accidentally stealing a baby, he’s off.

We then find him some weeks later working a low-wage job in a department store, getting into antics in the fabric section while trying not to get canned for showing up late. One afternoon he runs into an old friend that’s now a policeman- when his roommate “Limpy” Bill shows up, he claims he’s in so good with the police that they can pull the kneel behind him/push him backwards gag and not get in trouble. Naturally, they do it to the wrong cop, and Bill has to scramble clear up a four story building to get away, drawing a small crowd in the process.

Later, Mildred surprises Harold by coming into the city to start a family early, as his letters had given the impression he was much more of a big shot than he actually is. Wackiness follows as he tries to impress his sweetie at work by acting important, with his superiors none the wiser, and in the process he overhears the boss claim that he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who can draw large crowds to the store.

This gives Harold the bright idea to have Bill climb the twelve story building, and split the grand with him. The boss loves it, ads are put out, and they all prepare to find glory and success the next day…

The Artisticness:

Lloyd, at least in this film, is more of a reactionary comedian than a physical one, except for his stunt-work. Eschewing the pratfalls of Chaplin or the complex interactive scenery of Keaton, he mines laughter from the aghast faces of those taken unawares by our hero’s hijinks: the ambulance driver that finds Harold only faking a fainting spell to hitch a ride back to work, or the uptight supervisor double-taking after Harold’s snuck around behind him to punch in.

While this film featured Lloyd as an upwardly mobile ragamuffin, he was apparently unique for the range of class types he portrayed, instead of typecasting himself as a champion of the poor (like Chaplin’s “The Kid”).

Also, I hope to see a silent film with live music someday, as I’m sure that enhances the experience. The reworked score for the DVD version by Carl Davis was lively enough as it was.

Even at seventy minutes, silent films can drag a bit, but this one picks up as soon as it reaches the famous climbing sequence…


So the cop shows up at the big exhibition, preventing Bill from climbing the building. It’s okay, he says, Harold can just climb up to the second floor, duck in a window, and Bill will put on his coat and hat and finish the job. Harold awkwardly climbs the first story as the crowd cheers him on, but the cop finds Bill on the second floor.

Just go up one more, he says, while I ditch the cop. But the second floor has people crowded at the window ledges watching. The next floor has a dog, the next the cop shows up again, and so on. My favorite was the floor where a man is about to be photographed holding a gun, and Harold opens the window right as the flash goes off, and quickly continues upward thinking now he’s being shot at.

Other obstacles ensue, like some nosy pigeons, a broken flagpole, and of course the famous clock that Harold hangs onto for dear life. Finally, he reaches the top, where Mildred has come to wait for him, and is rewarded with a kiss (and presumably $1000),

He promptly walks through roofing tar on his way downstairs.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Hard to say. I’ve seen plenty of Chaplin, and some Keaton, but it’s hard to distinguish from our viewpoint. This pales in comparison to some of the more lavish productions like Modern Times (and it doesn’t have the imagination of Sherlock Jr.), but it made me chuckle.

The Legacy:

This is really the only film that most people remember of Lloyd’s and largely for the clock scene. It’s referenced directly in several places, most notably Back To The Future and the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy. Modern day physical comedian Jackie Chan also paid tribute in his 1983 film Project A.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Just for fun, here's a compilation of clips from Project A and their inspirations, where Mr. Chan makes homages to not only the clock scene, but parts of Modern Times and Sherlock Jr. as well.

Leftover Thoughts:

My other favorite gag was when Lloyd tried to get rid of the cop by writing “Kick Me” in reverse on the wall in chalk, and then bumping him into it.

Apparently Lloyd had a missing ring and index finger on his right hand from a 1919 set accident, which makes the stunts climbing the building all the more impressive (unsimulated climbing was done by Bill Strother- close-ups like the clock scene were Lloyd on soundstages). The danger was real enough to cause some audience members to faint, which they proudly bragged about in marketing the film.

This entry owes a lot to the Wikipedia page on Safety Last! What do you want from me? In 1923, my grandfather was 4.

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