By Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a film enthusiast, film maker and film historian. His contributions to our site are always welcome.
With Safety Last, Harold Lloyd scaled the heights of the artistic possibilities of the silent film medium, and gave silent comedy perhaps its most iconic moment: that of the bespectacled, straw-hatted go-getter hanging from the side of a skyscraper on the second-hand of a large clock, dangling over a busy street.
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Lloyd got the idea for the building climb when he observed a “human fly” scaling the side of a building in Los Angeles. He recruited that climber, Bill Strother, to act in the film. Lloyd had worked in “thrill comedy” before, most notably in his short films High and Dizzy (1920) and Never Weaken (1921), the latter with its memorable sequence in which Harold, believing he has successfully committed suicide, is lifted up on his office chair and out through the window by a girder beam on a crane. As he believes he is ascending to Heaven, he gets a rude awakening when he looks down to see the city streets below him! Although “thrill comedy” wasn’t new to Lloyd, he would take it to new heights in Safety Last.
In many ways, the plot of Safety Last seems to exist solely as a means of getting Harold up on that building. The plot is set up in the opening scene, when Harold’s girlfriend (played by Lloyd’s wife and long-time leading lady, Mildred Davis) tells him to go to the city and make good. He finds work as a department store clerk, and, desperate to climb the ladder of success, pitches a publicity stunt in which a “human fly” (played by Bill Strother) will scale the side of the department store. Complications ensue on the big day, when Strother is forced to flee from a policeman, and Lloyd is forced to climb the building himself.
Much has been written about the lengths to which Lloyd went to achieve the effect of being as high up on that building as he appears to be. Walter Kerr, in The Silent Clowns, notes that the building itself was located on a hill which, when combined with the careful placement of the camera, gave the illusion of a being at a much steeper angle than it actually was. Additionally, Lloyd placed a mattress below him in order to break his fall should he drop.1 Regardless of the means used to create the illusion, and the precautions taken to lessen the risk, Lloyd really demonstrates his incredible physical abilities in this sequence, displaying an astonishing degree of creativity in finding new ways to keep the audience in suspense as he scales the building. Despite the length of the sequence - more than a third of the film’s running time 2 - it never grows dull or repetitive. In This is Orson Welles, Welles said of Safety Last’s “human fly” sequence: “As a piece of comic architecture, it’s impeccable. Feydeau never topped it for sheer construction.”3
The climb is a perfectly structured piece of comic filmmaking. In Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim writes about selective camera placement as an example of “how the various peculiarities of film material can be, and have been, used to achieve artistic effects.”4 In this respect, Safety Last is an excellent example of the artistic effects made possible by the placement of the camera in heightening the effects of thrills and danger that are so essential to the comedy.
The opening sequence of the film gives another example of this technique at work. We first see Harold in close-up, standing behind bars. In the background is a noose, and a uniformed official stands near him. We then see his girlfriend saying goodbye to him, with tears in her eyes. The viewer assumes that Harold is in prison, about to be led to his execution. However, the next shot-a wide shot-reveals that Harold is merely waiting at the gate of a train station; the uniformed official merely a conductor; the noose a mail catcher, and so on. Aside from serving as a bit of dark humor, it also provides another example of the kind of tricks Lloyd played on the audience by selectively showing only parts of the entire scene. This cinematic deception also hints at the character deception that Harold must engage in throughout the film: hiding with his roommate in coats hanging on the back of a door in their apartment in order to dodge the landlord; posing as the store manager to impress his girlfriend when she makes a surprise visit to see him at work; and of course, being forced to play the part of a “human fly” in order to save his job at the department store. In addition to the suspense provided in the building climb sequence, there is also a great deal of suspense in wondering how long Harold will be able to pull off his charade in posing as the department store manager. Lloyd seems to be commenting on the dizzying heights of success to which his character is expected to climb, and the illusion, based on deception, that could be shattered at any moment.
Safety Last was the second-to-last film Lloyd made with producer Hal Roach, whom he’d been working with virtually ever since they entered films together in the early 1910s. They parted ways in 1923, with Lloyd setting up his own independent production for release through Pathe (and later Paramount). “Thrill” comedy would remain a part of Lloyd’s work, but he developed his craft toward an increasingly character-oriented approach that would culminate in films like The Freshman and The Kid Brother. The memorable chase sequences in Girl Shy, For Heaven’s Sake and Speedy, not to mention the exciting fight in the hold of a ship in The Kid Brother, are examples of the “thrill” element he never totally abandoned. He would never again create a “thrill” sequence as effective, thrilling and funny as the building climb from Safety Last, however. His attempt in his second talkie, Feet First, pales in comparison, partly because the situation lacks the narrative drive of the earlier film, and also because the addition of sound subtracts from the overall experience, emphasizing the danger Harold is in and diminishing the comedy. In his final screen appearance, in Preston Sturges’ The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Harold once again finds himself on the ledge of a tall building, except this time the “thrill” effect is totally neutered by the fact that he’s clearly in front of a process screen.
Safety Last remains one of Lloyd’s most popular films; its image of Harold hanging from the clock has been copied and imitated, but never equaled. A masterpiece of comic construction, driven by a strong, logical flow of gags, character and narrative, it is a perfect representation of the art of silent comedy.
1. Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 198.
2. Joe Franklin, Classics of the Silent Screen. (Seacaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1959), 44.
3. Orson Welles, quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum, ed. This is Orson Welles. (Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 1998), 38.
4. Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art. (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1958), 38.
Copyright © Matt Barry, 2010. All Rights Reserved. Used by Special Permission.