Saturday 1 April 2023

Safety Last! (1923)

Directors: Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor Writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan Stars: Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis

I’ve started this project a couple of years too late to follow Harold Lloyd’s features through, but better late than never. He started in film as early as 1913, a year before Charlie Chaplin, but his star didn’t rise as quickly and he never found the same level of control over his work. His first three features—A Sailor-Made Man in 1921, then Grandma’s Boy and Dr. Jack in 1922—are all excellent but this one is better still.

It’s one of the most famous silent comedies and it features one of the most famous silent era images, that of Harold Lloyd hanging onto a clock on the side of a building a long way up from the ground. I know how that was done, because there are a bunch of videos out there showing it, but it still holds up as part of a tense and frankly scary segment dominating the tail end of the film.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It’s a while before we get to Harold Lloyd climbing the outside of a tall building with what seems like every obstacle in the world getting in his way. As we begin, he’s just a lovestruck young man leaving Great Bend to make his fortune in the city so that his girl can join him and they can get married.

He’s Harold, his regular character with the iconic spectacles. She’s Mildred, his frequent co-star—she was The Girl in all three previous features—and now his wife, as they’d married in between the production and release of this picture. They’re a cute couple, if a tad dim, but that just sets up a string of gags and they work well from the outset.

The first is set up for us to believe that poor Harold is about to be hanged, but it’s all clever deception—the bars are at a train station and the noose is a pickup hoop, the device used to get messages to the drivers of trains without them having to stop. Before Harold even gets on the train, he shows us a few good gags and good stuntwork. This film isn’t hanging about.

But then we settle down for some character building. He’s staying with Bill in the city, who works in construction on high up girders and we see how fearless he is when a prank with a cop backfires and he’s chased up the side of a building. The actor is Bill Strother and he was known as the Human Spider. It won’t surprise that he was the inspiration for this picture.

He ran a real estate business in Kinston, NC, and was planning an auction but the flyers he had ordered didn’t arrive in time. A day before the auction, he joked to a stranger next to him at a diner that in order to draw a crowd he’d have to climb the Lenoir County Courthouse. That stranger was the editor of the Kinston Daily Free Press, and he put that joke into print as a promise. Strother found out when five thousand people showed up, so he had to start climbing. Needless to say, the auction was a success and he had a new career.

And so to this movie, with Harold landing a job at the De Vore department store but being a little economical with the truth in his letters home to Mildred. He boasts of progressing up the corporate ladder and funnels all his money into sending her jewellery rather than paying the rent. That backfires when she thinks he’s doing so wonderfully that he’s ready for her to join him, so shows up out of the blue.

That happens right after the scene depicted in the poster, which tellingly doesn’t show the climb. He’s a salesman, displaying and cutting fabrics for women, who shift from demanding to outright murderous when a sale is on. This scene is reminiscent of footage of Black Friday when people get trampled in the chaos, but he gets the brunt of it.

I laughed at everything Lloyd does in these scenes before the climb, but there are quite a few moments that reflect what was acceptable at the time but would never be included today. He sneaks into the store late one day disguised as a mannequin, only to scare the gentleman of colour who’s carrying him into climbing up a wall in fear. He measures a yard and a half of fabric during the sale against a pair of women, one twice as wide as the other. There’s even a scene where he looks at a lavalier chain while the Jewish proprietor rubs his hands together constantly with greed in his eyes.

Maybe utilising the scalp of a bald man as a mirror might still be OK, but those others, not on your life.

Those highly dated moments aside, this is a textbook in situation comedy. Lloyd’s timing is impeccable and seems to get better the faster a scene goes. The sale scene is glorious and the situational comedy as he takes over the office of the general manager to maintain his facade of importance to Mildred is just as good.

But to the climb. He overhears the manager suggesting $1,000 for a great idea to bring in a crowd of customers and he thinks back to Bill climbing the side of a building to escape a cop. Bill’s on board for $500 and so the publicity department get busy advertising the mystery man who will be climbing twelve stories of the Bolton Building, in which De Vore is housed.

The catch, because you knew there had to be one, is that a drunk shows that cop a story about the climb and he correctly assumes that the mystery man is the one he’s seeking. With Harold unable to get rid of the cop, he has to take the climb on himself, expecting to swap over to Bill one floor up. Except that becomes two and three and four and...

This is rightly one of the pivotal sequences in silent comedy and Lloyd sells it impeccably well. He gets attacked by pigeons, entangled in a net, even knocked silly by an anemometer... you name it, it happens and to Harold. And, of course, he famously hangs from the hands of a clock many stories up, while the camera looks past him at the city. Every edition of this film focuses its cover on this scene, rather than the sale at De Vore on the original poster. Such is its iconic stature.

Part of me wishes that the cop hadn’t shown up so that Bill Strother could have climbed up the Bolton Building for real, with the camera watching up from below as he gets higher and higher. However, Strother wasn’t a comedian and Lloyd adds so much to the climb that just wouldn’t be there had Bill done it. It’s comedy gold and kids today ought to thrill to it just as much as us oldies.

And this isn’t it for Lloyd in 1923. Only five months later, he’d release Why Worry?, so I’ll be back covering that in September.

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