Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock hundreds of feet over a city street. It’s one of the most iconic images in cinema history. Just that photo alone conveys suspense, thrills and cliff-hanging laughs.
This climactic sequence in Lloyd’s 1923 comedy Safety Last! has been paid homage in many films. From Back to the Future to Hugo to stunts by Jackie Chan, Lloyd dangling from that clockface is still as indelible an image as it was nearly 100 years ago. It’s got to the most famous use of a clock in a movie ever. Everyone is familiar with it even if they have no idea who Lloyd was or ever saw his film.
If they haven’t they’re missing out on a real treat. Not only the breath-taking building climb the movie builds to, but the entire movie is a funny love story with some creative devices and gags sprinkled throughout it.
‘The Boy’ (Lloyd) leaves his humble hometown for the big city with his sights set on being a success. That doesn’t come too easy and the best he achieves is being a broke sales clerk working on the ground floor (get it?) at De Vore Department Store.
However, this doesn’t stop the Boy from bragging to his girlfriend back home how great things are going for him. Excited and ready to hold him to his word of getting married as soon as he makes good, ‘The Girl’ (Mildred Davis) pays him a visit in the city. Now The Boy is forced to convince her he’s really the manager of this huge department store and not actually the lowest employee in the pecking order.
Him scaling the building comes later.
Lloyd has become something of one of the more neglected silent film comedians. Unlike his contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lloyd has been overshadowed by them and their films in the decades since they were the most popular screen stars around.
Which is ironic since during the 1920’s Lloyd had made more feature films than both of them and was just as recognized a performer by audiences.
Somehow through the years though Lloyd’s films weren’t shown as often and weren’t that prolific as Chaplin’s and Keaton’s and he’s become viewed as something like a minor-leaguer compared to those heavy weights.
Safety Last! was certainly his most popular film and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a perfect little movie. There’s a lot of great visual and physical gags that run through it. Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, was a very physical performer and he excels when he begins using his body in the stunt work and taking the prat falls.
There’s a real concern for story and making things progress in some kind of logical way. The gags that are employed aren’t just dropped randomly, but built up to in reasonable ways. There’s a reasoning – no matter how outlandish – behind how The Boy gets himself into situations. The scenes might ultimately be centered around a joke, but there’s a clear line of how he arrived in that particular predicament.
Watching it now it’s a real treat to see the creativity that those early artists had and how they pushed the early film technology that was available to them at the time in order to tell their stories.
There’s one very simple sequence with The Boy being happy he just got paid his weeks wages. Then he has to make a decision whether to spend it on this delicious dinner being offered in this diner window or a necklace for The Girl.
Of course his empty stomach will lose out to The Girl every time. As he slowly hands over his money to the jeweler he looks back at that big beautiful tray of food and watches as piece by piece of it disappears until it’s completely gone, along with the money in his hand. It’s such a simple and creative illustration but it plays out beautifully, plus it’s very funny.
Which brings us to the elaborately laid out situation of The Boy climbing the outside of the department store in an attempted publicity stunt.
Again, there’s a rationale behind how he ends up having to scale the building with huge crowds below watching his every moment. As he climbs higher and higher new and more dangerous obstacles are thrown at him. Nearly one hundred years later the sequence is just as funny and thrilling as when it was released.
What’s amazing about Lloyd’s climb is how effective the techniques of filming it have held up. It all still works.
I haven’t seen all of Lloyd’s films, but Safety Last! is definitely a film worth checking out. It ranks right up there as one of my favorite silent comedies.
A brief look at some of the techniques to create the building climb.
Harold Lloyd was second only to Charlie Chaplin in popularity during the height of the Silent Era, and in my opinion often surpassed Chaplin in pure physical comedy skills. My favorite Lloyd flick is "the Freshman," which is so light-hearted and endearing I challenge anyone to start watching it at any time of the evening and turn it off before it ends- I started watching it accidentally at midnight one night as I was getting ready for bed and was transfixed. It's hysterical and sweet and will make anyone a Lloyd fan overnight.