US (1923) Dirs. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor
Yes, this is the film which features the iconic scene of Harold Lloyd hanging precariously from the hands of a broken clock fade some four storeys above ground level. But it needs reminding that this was just the climax to a comedy of errors concerning the attempts of a love struck young man’s to impress his naïve fiancée.
More on the legendary clock stunt later but first a recap of the functional but deceptively fertile plot that gets us there. Lloyd is country boy Harold, who promises his sweetheart Mildred (Mildred Davies) he’ll earn his fortune in the city before marrying her. Despite the regular letters boasting of his success and expensive looking gifts, Harold is a lowly store clerk living hand to mouth, pawning his roommate Limpy Bill’s (Bill Strother) phonograph to pay for the knock off jewellery.
Impressed by this, Mildred pays Harold a visit at the store, forcing him to pretend he is the boss to the bemusement of his colleagues. During this farce, Harold learns the real boss is offering $1000 dollars for the best publicity stunt for the store. Harold suggests Bill scales the outside of the building but come the day, it is Harold who is does the climb instead.
And that is how Lloyd ends up halfway up a building, clinging on for dear life while hanging onto the hands of the clock. To be fair it could happen to anyone really, serving as a cautionary tale to not get ideas above your station and be true to yourself and those closest to you. Showing of may seem like a good idea at the time but if your partner loves you for who you are, there shouldn’t be any need for false bravado.
Okay, flippancy aside, while this is reduced to being the subtext of the story in the wake of the classic finale, as a breezy comedy this is ultimately a series of contrivances that could only take place in the movies but the appeal of Lloyd’s character was that he was the everyman the audience could relate to. Who better to learn such a lesson from?
In truth, however, the development of the film wasn’t so well intentioned, with producer and writer Hal Roach concocting the story after Lloyd had seen former steeplejack Bill Strother performing one of his death defying “Human Fly” stunts that were popular in the 1920’s, and mentioned it to Roach. Whilst it wasn’t mentioned at the time, Strother doubled for Lloyd in a couple of wide shots of the climb.
Also kept secret from public knowledge until long after Lloyd’s death in 1971, was the fact that a stuntman named Harvey Parry was also Lloyd’s double for many years, and featured in this film too. That isn’t to downplay the stunts Lloyd did perform, which of course is the main draw of this film and this scene in particular, complete with two digits missing from his right hand.
The sequence itself is full of thrills and spills as one might expect, leaving it all on the screen for the audience to delight in, hence its iconic status. But it is also a genius piece of filmmaking which isn’t as appreciated as it should be outside of film buffs and curious filmmakers alike who thrive on being privy to the innovative techniques and minutiae of the behind the scenes magic.
Had this been made today the effect would be achieved through green screen and CGI, but in 1923 it was simply down to the camera angles, positioned strategically to create the convincing illusion of Lloyd being so high up. In fact he was on a platform just a few feet off the ground but the use of perspective and clever editing inserts of the wide shots from above, below and across the way paints a much different picture.
Along with the edge of the seat thrills of this sequence we can’t forget the humour that is imbued in it that serves to impede Harold’s ascent. The reason why Bill couldn’t make the climb is that earlier he and Harold played a prank on a policeman (Noah Young) in a case of mistaken identity who threatened to arrest Bill if he ever saw him again.
PC Plod shows up at the event so Bill suggests that Harold start the climb to the first floor then they swap clothes and Bill takes over. However the copper finds Bill anyway and chases him through the building, forcing Harold to continue until Bill can ditch his pursuer. If that wasn’t enough pigeons, clumsy workmen and a tennis net (!) provide further distraction to Harold’s progress.
Elsewhere many of the gags centre on Harold’s work in the fabric department of the store, serving a swarm of fussy and brutish housewives. Like Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd’s physical humour was suitably employed to solve a problem – Harold avoids being caught arriving late for work via an ingenious disguise; a ruse involving a fifty dollar note helps him serve a little old lady; and his flexibility and timing helps in getting one over snooty floor manager Stubbs (Westcott Clarke).
Lloyd was also keen to be visually inventive like his peers and this extends to beyond the stunts. A ground breaking point of view shot of a high-speed ambulance journey is nail bitingly exhilarating, while simple overlay fades illustrating the extent of Harold’s poverty provide some nice pathos to the romantic gestures he makes to impress Mildred. Again this all tends to go unnoticed with the shadow of the clock stunt looming over it but it is worth paying attention to when reappraising Lloyd’s works.
It is no surprise that Safety Last! is discussed and revered largely for its seminal third act, which is quite an achievement to be remembered for, but there is a fun and clever social comedy driving it which shouldn’t be overlooked as a vital part of this endearing silent classic.