Safety Last! (1923) Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Safety Last! is a charming film filled with laughter and more than a dash of white-knuckle intensity. Its most famous scene features Harold Lloyd scaling a huge clocktower, and it still makes audiences anxious! It is one of the best crafted scenes in all of silent cinema –this film is not for the faint of heart, and in some respects it rivals any contemporary thriller.
The film opens with Harold, his mother, and girlfriend Mildred walking to a train station with what appears to be a noose in the foreground, but it is soon revealed to be a part of the train station. Harold is heading off to the city to make it big. He promises to write to Mildred frequently and send for her so they can get married. Harold finds a sales job at the De Vore Department Store. He is constantly getting into trouble with Mr. Stubbs, the head floor manager and he also regularly flees from the police with his roommate and friend, “Limpy” Bill.
Harold sends an expensive necklace to his girlfriend Mildred so that she thinks he is becoming wealthy and successful. She soon comes to visit Harold and he must pretend as if he is the general manager of the department store. However, the true general manager offers $1,000 to anyone who can bring hundreds of people into the store. Harold comes up with the idea of splitting the money with his room mate if he publicizes the fact that he will climb the “12 Story Bolton Building” as a death-defying stunt. The next day hundreds of people show up, but his room mate is soon spotted the police and chased. They devise a plan for Harold to climb one floor and meet “Limpy” Bill who trade hats and coats so he can climb the rest of the way while avoiding the cops. However, Bill cannot avoid them in time so Harold must climb the whole way.
Each floor yields a new challenge: mice, birds, objects being tossed out of windows, onlookers, attack dogs, and a large clock that Harold finds himself hanging onto for dear life. Eventually, after a grueling scene, Harold makes it to the top of the building to find Mildred there waiting for him and they walk off together arm in arm.
Like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd performed many of the stunts himself, despite losing his thumb and forefinger four years earlier in a filming accident. Someone handed Lloyd a bomb, and thinking it was a mere prop, Lloyd lit it with a cigarette and it promptly blew off his right thumb and index finger. This led him to wear a white glove in all his future films. While climbing the wall during Safety Last!, which was really a clever facade built atop of a skyscraper, Lloyd grabs hold of the clock that reads 2:45, with the hands being parallel to facilitate the stunt. In contrast to any mother’s advice (i.e. “safety first”) Harold Lloyd gives us a terrifically risky comedy in Safety Last!
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