#262) Safety Last! (1923)
OR “The Edmund Hillary of Film Comedy”
Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
Written by Taylor & Hal Roach and Tim Whelan
Class of 1994
The Plot: Country boy Harold Lloyd (Harold Lloyd) leaves his small hometown of Great Bend to make it big in the city. He ends up selling fabrics at the De Vore department story, but has told his girl back home (Mildred Davis) that he is the store’s general manager. Unable to keep the ruse going much longer, Harold must come up with more money. He learns that his boss (Actor Unknown) is offering $1000 for anyone who comes up with a publicity stunt for the store. Remembering how his friend “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother) once evaded the police by climbing the side of a building, Harold convinces Bill to repeat the stunt at De Vore’s. After a series of comedic circumstances, Harold must scale the building himself, even if it means iconically hanging from a clock face.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “Harold Lloyd’s finest film” and gives a brief description of the production. There’s also an essay by Hal Roach expert Richard W. Bann.
But Does It Really?: I’ve said it before: “Safety Last!” is the definitive Harold Lloyd film. Lloyd tends to get overshadowed by Chaplin and Keaton, but his films are just as entertaining, and best exemplify the energetic optimism of the ‘20s. Most of the jokes in “Safety Last!” still land, and I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit during my viewing – not to mention being on the edge of my seat for most of the third act. Like many of the great silent films, “Safety Last!” is simple, yet effective. Another no-brainer for NFR inclusion.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the supporting cast, notably Bill Strother, whose “human spider” act inspired the film, and Mildred Davis, who shortly after filming became Mrs. Harold Lloyd.
Wow, That’s Dated: The usual ‘20s stuff: trollies, newsies, and the six-day work week, including a half-holiday on Saturday. Plus a shoutout to the Follies!
- Turns out Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd started off as film extras together. When Roach received an inheritance, he started his own production company and made a series of successful “Lonesome Luke” shorts starring Lloyd. “Safety Last!” was one of their first attempts producing a feature film.
- The cast list is titled “For Your Approval”. Leave it on my desk and I’ll have a decision made by Friday.
- Readers, I give you “Limpy” Bill!
- Ah yes, the daily fresh Hell that is working retail.
- Even Harold Lloyd’s background gags are hilarious!
- I usually don’t mention a film’s rankings on those AFI lists (they aren’t carved in stone, after all), but it’s interesting that “Safety Last!” made their top 100 most thrilling movies, but not their top 100 funniest. Its spot on 100 Thrills is warranted, but it’s definitely funnier than “The Freshman”.
- My favorite title card in this movie: “You’re no collar ad yourself.” Zing!
- It helps that Mildred is incredibly gullible and has no peripheral vision whatsoever. Harold can get away with anything!
- The $1000 offered for the best idea comes out to over $14,000 today. Man, I want $14,000 for telling someone to climb a building.
- A simple internet search will reveal many of the tricks Harold Lloyd and his team used to create the illusion of him scaling the building. But it doesn’t matter because it’s still am impressive feat of filmmaking to watch. I got serious chills with every close call.
- Thanks to its proximity to the International Savings Building, Blackstone’s gets plenty of advertising as “California’s Finest Store”.
- Very nice of the crowd to ignore whenever Harold stops on a ledge and almost goes into the building. Mildred must have coached them.
- Were those pigeons about to mate?
- Perhaps the most amazing thing about Harold Lloyd’s stunts in this film is that he was climbing that building with only eight fingers. He lost two fingers in 1919 when he picked up what he presumed was a prop bomb for a photo shoot. The bomb promptly exploded in his hand, leaving Lloyd permanently deformed.
- This film’s main premise is basically a reverse-“Vertigo”. A “Reversigo”, if you will.
- That’s what I love about silent films: They reach their climax and fade to black. No epilogue necessary, we know Harold and Mildred live happily ever after (in the film and in real life!)
- Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach parted ways not too long after “Safety Last!” Lloyd would successfully produce his own movies (including “The Freshman”), and Roach would find success producing shorts starring the likes of Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals.
- The shot of Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock face is arguably the most iconic image in silent film history. Everyone has done their own variation on it, the most famous being another NFR film: “Back to the Future”.
- Other references to the clock shot include the opening credits of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and the poster for the movie “Oscar”. Seriously, “Oscar”?
- “Hello? Human Fly here!”