Here’s an image so iconic that it’s recognised by people who have no idea what film it’s from, or who the geezer hanging off the clock is. Wikipedia calls it one of the most famous images from the silent-film era but it’s surely more than that – this is one of the most famous images from any era, in any medium, and ranks alongside the Mona Lisa or the mask of Tutankhamoun, right?
Maybe I’m hyperventilating a bit there, but to change tack slightly, the added brilliance of this remarkable image is that it perfectly sums up in one frame what Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd’s 1923 masterpiece, is all about – hanging on for grim life.
In “welcome to the precariat” style, it’s about a poor man called Harold (Lloyd) who leaves his sweetheart, Mildred (Mildred Davis, the future Mrs L), behind in their home town while he heads off to the city to make it. After a series of scrapes involving authority figures, and for reasons it’s worth watching the film for, he winds up climbing up the outside of the department store where he works, largely to save face with Mildred, who’s turned up in the city unexpectedly.
Really, it should be his pal Bill (Bill Strother) who’s climbing the building, because Bill can climb and Harold can’t, but, again for reasons it’s worth watching the film for, Bill is being pursued by a policeman inside the building while Harold is climbing up the outside, imperilled by one thing after another – pigeons, a tennis net, a plank, his shoe getting stuck in a toehold, but most of all his own inability to climb.
The whole film is brilliantly constructed and it all builds towards this climbing sequence, which spins together physicality, jeopardy and simple but incredibly effective special effects – false perspectives, mostly, and if you watch as Harold ascends ever higher you can see that the buildings in the background aren’t always where they should be.
Lloyd did all his own stunts, or so the story went. After he died, the stuntmen who’d worked on Safety First! started to tell their story. But it’s obvious from what’s in front of our eyes that Harold did a lot of the stuntwork; his agility is amazing. Bill Strother was a steeplejack by trade and he’s where Lloyd got the idea for the film in the first place. When Bill is on the building, early on, that actually is Bill. Watch him go.
Images of hanging on recur – to a coat hook in one memorable sight gag, but also to a cart, a tram, a train. But the big irony is that thanks to a studio accident in 1919 involving a prop bomb that turned out not to be a prop bomb (itself a scene straight from a silent movie), Lloyd had lost the thumb and index finger on his right hand and so was at a disadvantage when it came to hanging on to anything. He’s wearing a glove on that hand throughout, as he always did on set after the accident, and thanks to the quality of the restoration – apart from a questionable veil of grain, it’s sharp, bright, has nice contrast and a good tonal range – you can see it’s a glove if you get up close and have a squint.
Safety Last! buzzes with modernity – cars and trains, time-keeping clocks, shopping as a leisure activity, the throb of the consumerist age – and is largely filmed out on the streets, among the whizzing cars and teeming crowds. It builds from the gentle to the frenzied, and is an object lesson in how to pace a film. It’s full of wit and comes at sight gags from various angles. Lloyd even borrows the sort of gag more associated with Buster Keaton – a shift of the camera and all is not what it seemed. And because it’s so busy and drives forward at such a pace, it doesn’t have much time for the prissy side of the bespectacled Harold character. One more reason to watch.
Safety Last! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023