|Harold Lloyd, clinging for dear life above the streets of Los Angeles.|
|This gag, where Harold and his pal hide from the landlady |
on a coat rack, appears in several Lloyd films.
The first half of the film would be worth watching in its own right even without the big finish, but as it is, it is difficult to come away from Safety remembering anything else. Indeed, the picture of Lloyd dangling from the giant clock on the side of the building is the iconic image of his career. My co-author has made a point recently to speak out in favor of veracity in stunt work, a position with which I must whole-heartedly agree. I don't mind if the star performers are replaced by stunt doubles, although it is definitely more exciting to watch people like Douglas Fairbanks or Jackie Chan who do most everything themselves (I recently learned that Evil Knieval used a stunt double in portions of his film Viva Knieval, a revelation which makes me truly saddened about the state of the world). However, thrilling action sequences in films are just not exciting when I cannot entertain even the least illusion that anyone, ever, actually performed the feat in question.
That is certainly not the case here. Lloyd did not personally climb the building as was claimed publicly for many years, but his co-star Bill Strother did, and he did it with a broken ankle, which is why the film identifies him as "Limpy Bill." Strother, who is the one pictured in all the long shots of the building, climbed the facade of the International Bank Building in downtown Los Angeles, without any camera tricks or devices. He was wired to the building for safety, but he argued against even this precaution, and indeed had done similar climbs without wires many times before. Hence the broken ankle.This is not to say that the first half of the movie is not good in its own right; far from it. The real meat of the film is in the first half, in the nuts and bolts of the comedy. These are hard-working, well-written and well-filmed gags that are consistently rewarding no matter how many times I watch Safety. Lloyd's humor in general is smarter than that of many of his contemporaries, thoroughly earning him the title "The Third Genius" (after Chaplin and Keaton). The humor in Safety is not literate, nor does it rely on previous knowledge in the audience, but the gags are constructed in a way that requires careful and meticulous planning rather than whimsical improvisation.
The medium and close range shots with Lloyd himself, which account for most of the footage, were done on a series of building facades mounted on top of existing buildings, with a platform below for safety. Famously, Lloyd tested the platforms by dropping a dummy of himself from the wall, which bounced off the mattresses and fell ten stories to the street below. The wall was built in such a way as to make it easier to hold onto, but apart from these differences the climb sequence is exactly what it appears to be. The stunt was certainly incredibly dangerous even with precautions, particularly when considering that he was not on the wall for twenty minutes as is seen in the film, but spent several weeks filming these scenes. From the perspective of the viewer, each step, each hand over hand is agonizing, as every slightest motion puts him in danger of instant death. The tension this creates then provides the perfect fuel for a series of gags which rely for their effect at least as much on our relief at his continued safety as they do on their inherent humor.
|Shots such as these make it clear that someone, at least, did climb the actual building.|
|This rope is not attached to anything.|
In the opening scene in the film, Harold is preparing to board a train for the city, off to make his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart, Mildred (Lloyd's longtime co-star Mildred Davis, whom he would marry himself shortly after completing the film). He lingers on the platform with Mildred until the last possible moment, and then grabs his suitcase and makes a mad dash for the train, which is already pulling away from the station. What the viewer sees and Harold does not, though, is that his suitcase is still sitting on the platform where he left it, and that he has picked up a baby in a basket by mistake. The baby's mother runs after him, but while he has his back turned making the exchange the train passes him, followed by an ice wagon crossing the track. Just as he turns back to board the train, the back of the wagon is there before him, so he hops on, only to realize a moment later that the wagon is whisking him off in the wrong direction. He jumps down, and runs after the train, just in time to catch it.
|Boarding the wrong train.|
|Safe at the top at last with Mildred.|
This is in sharp contrast to the school of comedy Mack Sennett had developed at Keystone ten years earlier, which was built on the premise that if you simply put funny people in front of a camera they would be funny (to be fair, this plan usually worked with Chaplin, although even he got funnier once he started using a little more care). There are no cream pies in Lloyd's films, although a banana peel does put in an appearance from time to time. Particularly as his work progressed, his films began to look less and less like slapstick, although at their best they still relied primarily on visual humor for their impact. In many ways, Lloyd's features are the linear descendants of the Fairbanks comedies of the 1910's, which combined elements of slapstick with theatrical comedy to create funny, narrative stories about realistic characters. The screwball comedies of the 1930's seem to have developed out of this same heritage, albeit with another hefty dose of theatrical comedy mixed in.
Overall, Lloyd's films were among the most popular and the highest grossing of the 1920's, and although they are all entertaining, Safety Last! is the most appealing and enduring of the lot, making it essential viewing for anyone interested in the origins of American comic film.