Safety Last

1923, Movie, NR, 73 mins

Review

SAFETY LAST
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SAFETY LAST is a typical Harold Lloyd story about an average Joe's attempts to scale the heights of romantic love and professional success. Its concluding episode, in which Harold is forced to climb the face of a 12-story building, is the most famous 18 minutes in all of silent comedy.

Harold (Harold Lloyd) moves to the big city, where he intends to make his mark and then summon and wed his hometown sweetheart, Mildred (Mildred Davis). Over the next few months, he writes her of his success as a rapidly rising executive, although he is in fact only a common clerk. One day, Mildred pays a surprise visit to DeVore's, the department store where Harold works. By dint of a desperate series of impromptu ploys, the boy manages to maintain his lofty image in the girl's eyes.

Harold overhears the store's general manager pledging a prize of $1,000 to anyone who can come up with an idea that will attract customers. Harold sells his boss on the following publicity stunt: at 2 PM a man will climb the full 12-story facade of the building that houses DeVore's, attracting people from miles around to witness the event. Harold then offers half the prize money to his roommate, Bill (Bill Strothers), to perform the stunt. A professional steeplejack accustomed to heights, Bill readily agrees.

When the time for the big event arrives, so does a policeman (Noah Young) who is after Bill for a recent indiscretion. To avoid arrest, Bill instructs Harold to begin the ascent in his place, promising to replace his pal when Harold reaches the second floor. The boy reluctantly starts to climb. Meanwhile, the cop spots Bill and chases him into the interior of the building. When Harold reaches the second story, Bill has yet to shake his pursuer and urges Harold to scale one more floor before being relieved. This harrowing pattern continues until Harold has climbed all 12 stories, in the process encountering an endless succession of obstacles including pigeons, a wayward tennis net, a protruding workman's plank, a giant clock, an unfriendly dog, a flagpole, a gunsel (Harold doesn't know that the man is only a photographer's model), assorted kibitzers, and a weather vane that knocks him silly. Safe on the roof at last, Harold is greeted and embraced by the adoring Mildred.

SAFETY LAST was not the first film in which Lloyd performed his human fly act, nor would it be his last. Variations appear in LOOK OUT BELOW (1919), HIGH AND DIZZY (1920), NEVER WEAKEN (1921), FEET FIRST (1930), and THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK (1947; aka MAD WEDNESDAY)--but SAFETY LAST is the one everyone remembers. The seed for the movie was planted in Lloyd's mind when he happened to witness Bill Strothers, a local daredevil known as "The Human Spider," scale a 12-story office building in downtown Los Angeles.

Lloyd quickly hired Strothers to play his roommate in a new thrill-comedy which its directors wanted to call "$15 Per." Its star held out for SAFETY LAST. The now legendary climactic sequence was shot over a period of two months, at the rate of two hours a day. Although the sequence contains no trick photography, the building Lloyd appears to be climbing is a composite of four actual buildings. Despite the fact that he worked above safety apparatus and was doubled by Strothers in a few particularly perilous long shots, the risks Lloyd took were quite real--and he did it all with only eight fingers, thanks to a freak accident he had experienced on the set of a 1920 film, HAUNTED SPOOKS. To anyone who felt Lloyd's feat was compromised by the aforementioned precautionary measures, he would reply, "Who wants to fall three stories?"

The fourth most popular picture of 1923, SAFETY LAST grossed over 10 times its cost. Audiences, including ailing president Warren Harding, loved it, although faintings were not infrequent. Before the film's release, Lloyd married its leading lady, Mildred Davis. The department store, combining as it does aspects of both the worlds of business and theater, is such a propitious setting for movies, and for comedies in particular, it's a wonder that Hollywood has employed it so infrequently. (See MODERN TIMES, THE BIG STORE, etc.) In the first two-thirds of SAFETY LAST, Lloyd is unable to exploit the comic potential of DeVore's interior as memorably as he will ultimately exploit its exterior, but he still provides much to laugh at, including a scene in which Harold attempts to stave off the onslaught of frenzied female shoppers descending on a display of fabric like lions on raw meat.

Impossible to watch without undergoing visitations of vertigo, SAFETY LAST's climactic sequence is all it's reputed to be. Never before has a stretch of celluloid been at once so funny and so chilling. Though lacking in the subtle poignancy that helped make THE FRESHMAN (1925) and THE KID BROTHER (1927) Lloyd's finest films, SAFETY LAST is a classic crowd-pleaser as well as the source of a convenient metaphor. Its central figure, a fool on the rise, epitomizes not only Lloyd's stock character, an eager young beaver who will (and often must) do anything to get ahead, but also the comedian himself, who, as merely "The Third Genius" (after Chaplin and Keaton), had to try that much harder.

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