Safety Last! is a film very much of its period. Watching a ‘human fly’ (Bill Strother) scaling a building in Los Angeles, witnessed by a rapt crowd, inspired Harold Lloyd. Such thrill-seeking stunts were commonplace at the time. Strother earned the part of ‘Limpy’ Bill in the film.
The story at the heart of Safety Last! is slight. Lloyd (like Buster Keaton) typically made his movies working from an idea, rather than a script. The Boy (Lloyd) from a small town (actually Culver City) heads for the bright lights of LA, to make his fortune and (as a result) marry The Girl (Mildred Davis, his regular co-star who married Lloyd after this film was completed). What could possibly go wrong?
The film opens with a very inventive piece of visual misdirection. Our intrepid hero then gets a job as a sales clerk in a department store, regularly sending his gal letters, which present a significantly enhanced view of his achievements. There’s a fun sequence in the early part of the film where Lloyd winds up accidentally locked in the back of a laundry van, heading away from the store where he works and in danger of being late to clock in. Naturally, he comes up with a cunning plan to save the day, unintentionally giving modern audiences a documentary view of the streets of LA in the 1920s. One scene featuring a Jewish jeweller, however, is jarringly racist. However, this was a standard cinematic trope of its day. The past is forever a foreign country.
The Girl comes to town and visits the department store, keen to witness Harold’s success. Comic shenanigans ensue as Lloyd tries to preserve the illusion he has portrayed. He comes up with an idea of getting Bill (who has previously exhibited skills worthy of Spider-Man) to climb the multi-floor department store, as a publicity stunt to promote it. This will earn him enough (the store is paying a reward) to marry Mildred. Alas, Bill has fallen foul of the beat policeman and Harold has to keep climbing just “one more floor” in his place, while Bill tries to evade the cop.
As a comedy, viewed in this era, Safety Last! is amusing rather than hilarious. It’s the thrilling (and funny) climb where the film kicks into a higher gear. The scene of Lloyd hanging from the clock face, with a busy LA street in the background, is one of cinema’s truly iconic moments. Naturally, there is some clever camera trickery involved (which is explained in one of the extras), but filming this sequence was certainly not without risk. Indeed, it was more risky for Lloyd than for most. A prop bomb during a publicity shoot in 1919 turned out to have a real charge. Lloyd lost the thumb and index finger of his right hand (subsequently he wore a prosthetic glove).
Compared to his peers like Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd has faded from public consciousness, except among avid film buffs. As he owned the rights to his films, he resisted having them shown on TV for decades. Actions have consequences.
Available on Blu-ray now