Directed By: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Starring: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother
Trivia: Harold Lloyd got the idea for this film when he saw Bill Strother climbing the Brockman Building in Los Angeles as a stunt one day
In a scene from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film, The Dreamers, Matthew (Michael Pitt) and Theo (Louis Garrel) argue over who was the better screen comedian: Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. To be sure, those two legendary performers are, to this day, considered the kings of silent comedy. But there were others as well, including Harold Lloyd, a Nebraska native whose horn-rimmed glasses were as familiar to audiences in the 1920s as Chaplin’s mustache.
Lloyd’s 1923 classic, Safety Last!, is about a country boy (played by Lloyd) who heads to the big city to seek fame and fortune, promising his sweetheart (Mildred Davis) he’ll send for her the moment he’s a success. Unfortunately, the best job he can land is a clerk in a department store, working at the ladies fabric counter for a meager wage. Refusing to admit he’s a lowly employee, the Boy writes his girl telling her he’s the store’s manager, and showering her with expensive gifts he can’t really afford. Unable to wait any longer, the Girl travels to the city to surprise the Boy, dropping by unexpectedly at his workplace. Realizing he’s got to make some quick cash to keep his ruse going, the Boy undertakes a publicity stunt for the store that will pay him $1,000. The only requirement: that he perform the death-defying feat of scaling the outside of the building, all 12 floors, from the street up to the roof!
Safety Last! proved the perfect showcase for Lloyd’s talents, displaying, above all else, his character’s extreme optimism, a trademark the actor would carry with him throughout his career. Brimming with confidence, the Boy lets his excitement get the best of him almost immediately as he attempts to board the train to the city, hopping instead onto the back of a horse-drawn carriage while enthusiastically waving goodbye. Of course, his cheery outlook is put to the ultimate test in the film’s most famous sequence, and indeed one of silent cinema’s most recognizable images: that of Lloyd dangling from the side of the department store building. It’s a tremendously staged scene, a wonderful combination of thrills and guffaws that contributed to Lloyd’s reputation as the “Daredevil comedian”. There’s even a run-in with a weather vane that’ll have you laughing from the edge of your seat.
Lloyd would appear in some 200 movies between 1913 and 1947, with the height of his popularity coming in the 1920s, a time when he was the screen’s most popular comic. His films would out-gross those of Buster Keaton, and, on occasion, Charlie Chaplin’s as well. Today, Lloyd’s career may be little more than a footnote in cinematic history, but there’s no denying his contribution to the medium. And Safety Last! was his crowning achievement.