If I was to say ‘Harold Lloyd’ to you I expect the first thing that would pop into your head would be an image of the actor holding the minute hand of a clock face as he clings on for dear life, high above the ground. Much like King Kong at the top of the Empire State Building – another great feat of skyscraper climbing – it quickly became one of the iconic images of early cinema, and has remained so for close to a hundred years, which is quite an amazing thing to consider. (And, while you’re there, consider the number of action films you’ve seen that have followed the template here, in which the plot builds to a jaw-dropping set piece at the end.) Although there’s plenty of information readily available that explains how Lloyd really performed the complex, meticulously-planned stunt – false building facades, safety mattresses, trick camerawork – he still popped one of his arms out of its socket while filming it, and it’s worth mentioning the fact that he did most of the climbing after losing a finger and a thumb in a bizarre accident a few years earlier, when he mistook a fake bomb for a real one.
The skyscraper scene arrives at the end of Safety Last!, a fine silent comedy where the first hour is somewhat overshadowed by the final fifteen minutes. Lloyd stars as a young man who travels to Los Angeles to find gainful employment, keen to become a success in the eyes of his girlfriend, played by Mildred Davis. He gets a job at the fictional DeVore department store, whereupon he discovers he could pocket a hefty sum if he can draw a big crowd to the shop; this he does by advertising his skyscraper-climbing roommate as an attraction. So, at the end, it’s supposed to be Lloyd’s pal (Bill Strother) doing the climbing, but an interfering policeman puts paid to that, ensuring the bespectacled, be-hatted hero is the man tasked with shimmying his way from floor to floor (the irony being Strother, a steeplejack/human fly in real life, was the inspiration for the film and did actually stand in for Lloyd in some of the long shots). The film is funny and inventive: the first five minutes in particular are very strong and delight in wrong-footing the audience, while there are plenty of laughs based around Lloyd’s working days in the store, but I suppose it’s hard to argue against that spectacular finale being the clear highlight of the movie. It’s a brilliant, creative piece of filmmaking as well as being a real knee-knocker, you’re rooting for the charismatic, likeable Lloyd all the way, and it’s something that I never, ever tire of watching.
Directed by: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor.
Written by: H.M. Walker, Jean Havez, Harold Lloyd, Hal Roach, Sam Taylor.
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bill Strother, Mildred Davis.
Cinematography: Walter Lundin.
Editing: T.J. Crizer.
Running Time: 73 minutes.