Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – Safety Last! (1923)
Few images from cinema are more iconic than the 1920s, black-and-white photo of a young man in round glasses dangling from a clock. Even if you’ve never seen a silent film, it’s guaranteed that you’ve seen this famous still at some point – and you’ve probably seen more than a few homages to it, too.
Yet relatively few people have seen the film it’s from – Safety Last! (1923), Harold Lloyd’s silent comedy classic. This is a shame because it’s not only timelessly funny, but it can still give audiences a thrill even in this age of elaborate special effects (not for nothing did the American Film Institute include it on their “100 Most Thrilling Movies” list).
By the early 1920s, Harold Lloyd was flying high. He had energetically worked his way up from being a bit player and supporting comedian to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest box office stars, with an appealing “everyman” persona in signature round spectacles. Usually called “The Boy” in his comedies, Lloyd portrayed hardworking, optimistic go-getters who strove for success – characters very much in tune with 1920s culture.
At the time, “thrill comedies” were a popular subgenre, with comedians braving dizzy heights, out-of-control automobiles, speeding steam trains, and other assorted terrors all in the name of laughs (often doing the dangerous stunts themselves). Stunt work had been common in slapstick films since the earliest days of cinema and only accelerated as the years went by. Studios like Keystone Film Company were legendary for their goofy stunts, and comedians like Larry Semon specialized in crazy spectacles. The thrill comedies of the Roaring Twenties were the natural result of years of comedians trying to outdo each other, one spinning Model T or lengthy fall from a window, at a time.
Stunts weren’t only popular in the movies, either. Fairs often included frenetic shows involving everything from diving horses to people being shot out of cannons — even staged locomotive crashes. Stores used “ballyhoo,” or publicity stunts, to attract fresh crowds of customers, which could be as simple as paying someone to wear a sandwich board all day or as dangerous as having someone bungee jump off the store building. In general, folks in the 1920s seemed to have an endless appetite for crazy stunts.
In fact, it was witnessing a man perform a public stunt that gave Harold Lloyd the idea of making Safety Last! Years later he recalled: “Without too much ado he started at the bottom of the building and started to climb up the side of this building. Well, it had such a terrific impact on me, that when he got to about the third floor or fourth floor, I couldn’t watch him anymore. My heart was in my throat, and so I started walking up the street…but, of course, I kept looking back all the time to see if he was still there…I just couldn’t believe he could make that whole climb, but he did…”
As hair-raising as this climb was to watch, it turned out to be inspiring. Lloyd decided he simply had to meet this daredevil. Nicknamed “the Human Spider,” Bill Strother had become famous for climbing buildings in front of amazed crowds to advertise various businesses. With an idea for a new comedy brewing, Lloyd got Strother a contract with his producer Hal Roach and started work on what would become Safety Last! Lloyd had made several “thrill pictures” by 1923, such as High and Dizzy (1920) and Never Weaken (1921), but he was determined that this newest film — involving the daring climb of a tall building — would top them all.
Safety Last! is basically a two-part film, the first half introducing us to “the Boy” (Lloyd) who travels to the big city to “make good” so he can marry his girl (Mildred Davis). He ends up working as a lowly sales assistant in a department store. In the second half, the Boy comes up with the idea for a publicity stunt to boost the store’s sales. He enlists his pal “Limpy” Bill (played by Strother) to climb to the top of the 12-story building that houses the department store. Unfortunate circumstances keep Bill from climbing, however, and the Boy takes his place.
Parts of this hair-raising sequence were done for real. Strothers, dressed like Lloyd’s character, is shown climbing a building in several long shots, which were interspersed into the closing scenes with Lloyd.
But film wizardry was also heavily involved, of course. Lloyd would build a set on top of an actual building in downtown Los Angeles, near the edge of the roof, with a tower for the cameramen built nearby. When angled slightly downwards, the camera captured Lloyd climbing the faux building in the foreground with a real view of the busy downtown in the background. A simple but convincing effect. Several buildings were used for these shots to get footage at escalating heights — the set for the famous clock scene was apparently atop 908 S. Broadway.
This being the 1920s, those rooftop sets weren’t all that safe, either. Lloyd still could’ve gotten injured in a fall, or even fallen from the rooftop itself. Apparently, the clock scenes were filmed with a mattress underneath, which Lloyd decided to test one day by dropping a dummy onto it. The dummy bounced off the mattress and right over the edge of the roof. (They filmed the scene anyways.)
If this all weren’t exciting enough, Lloyd performed those climbing scenes with a hidden disability. In 1919, he had posed for publicity stills that showed him lighting a cigarette with a prop bomb. By some bizarre twist of fate, the “prop” bomb turned out to be an actual explosive. The blast blew off the thumb and index finger of Lloyd’s right hand and left him bedridden for weeks. In time, he returned to films, using skin-color gloves to conceal his mangled hand. That he did those rigorous scenes so well, is a testament to his remarkable “can do” attitude.
All that hard work, and throwing caution to the wind paid off. Safety Last! was a huge hit in its time, thrilling countless audiences. Some theaters even advertised that they had nurses in attendance in case anyone fainted. Today it’s rightfully considered a cultural milestone, and not only because it’s the source of one of cinema’s most famous images. If it’s ever playing on a big screen near you, drop everything and go experience it with an audience. You’ll never forget all those laughs–and gasps.
Historian John Bengtson’s posts on Lloyd’s filming locations for Safety Last! were a very helpful source for this post–take a look at them here
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.