“Safety Last” (1923) is the one with Harold Lloyd hanging onto a clock, dangling from a building several stories high. You know the one.
Much has been written about Mr. Lloyd’s comic genius (including from time to time on this blog), and about his remarkable ability to still perform some stunts through the 1920s even though he had lost his right thumb and forefinger in an accident.
What is especially interesting about this film, like many of his other films of this period, is the legacy of an unintentional documentary slice of the 1920s. Mr. Lloyd and his gang are out to set up gags, thrill sequences, and climactic endings, but inadvertently document for us the era in a way later films shot primarily on studio lots, did not. There is a gloss to 1930s films, even the Warner Bros. gangster films, where illusion and façade permeate the story. The Dead End Kids are a big stagey, and even Bogart and Cagney get a bit talky at times. But in the films of Harold Lloyd where he plays his “glasses character,” there is a whole world going on in the background that no longer exists. It comes through the film in a genuine and unselfconscious sort of realism.
The story of this film has Harold, a.k.a. The Boy, leaving his sweetheart in the small town to go to the big city to Make Something of Himself. The line in the caption is “make good.” Making good used to be important in our society, and it had nothing to do with getting rich quick with fail-proof techniques learned from TV infomercials. It had nothing to do with skill through steroids, and not an ounce of bling was required or even tasteful.
“Making good” was a leftover Victorian principal, just beginning to be made fun of in the breezy 1920s, but not so much that it wasn’t still accepted as proper. It had to do with accomplishment, self-reliance, and respectability.
The film opens with a clever sight gag, where Lloyd is seen through bars, a noose hanging in the background, and a minister standing by. His girl, played by Lloyd regular and future wife, Mildred Davis, is teary-eyed. We think he is on death row, but when the camera shows us he is leaving the train station and the bars are just gates, the noose is a mail catch device for the train, and the minister, and his girl are just seeing him off on his adventure, we know we are in for a ride. Already we have been fooled.
As he is about to board his train, he mistakes a baby carrier for his luggage, and nearly walks off with an infant. Notably, the baby and mother are African-American, but this is not a racial joke. The two could be played by white actors, so it is heartening to see someone get a day’s pay for film work who might otherwise not have a lot of opportunity for that. Also, the mother is dressed for travel, with a suit typical to the period and an enormous hat, looking every bit the middle class lady. It’s unfortunate that later in the film we are shown a Jewish jeweler in an unflattering stereotype.
What is most fascinating about the film are the scenes shot in the big city department store where Lloyd has found a job. He rooms with a pal, and the two have a clever gag where, hiding from the landlady, they crawl into their overcoats and hang themselves by pegs on the wall. Some of the funniest gags are the most simple.
He has a meager job as a sales clerk, but boasts to his girlfriend that he is a big success, and that his position at the store “grows in respectability every day.” We see again that respectability is a very important component in making good.
His supervisor is a self-important floorwalker with a pince-nez and a morning suit. Lloyd is nearly pummeled by a flock of women shopping for the bolts of cloth at his counter. We see that many of them, women looking to be about in their 40s and 50s, actually have their hair bobbed. This was not just a fad for the young flappers. They are not dressed as flappers, obviously, but though the post-World War I world is not the one in which they grew up, and they mean to adapt. There are women clerks in the store, too.
Saturday is a half-day, and this means payday. We see that these were still the days when one’s pay envelope contained cash, not a company check. Harold is paid $15 for the week. Incidentally, there was no withholding for taxes at this time, and Social Security had not yet been created. Harold spends his hard-earned cash for a lavaliere and chain for his girlfriend, to create the illusion for her that he is “making good.”
But the climb up the corporate ladder is not easy for The Boy. In one scene, Harold is reprimanded by his supervisor for having taken off his suit coat while working behind the notions counter. He is called before the general manager for working in public in his shirt sleeves. In front of respectable ladies. No dress-down Fridays in Harold’s world.
Unexpectedly, his sweetie comes to the big city to visit him, and there is a sequence of scenes in the store where Harold must try to continue to fake his importance, bossing around his co-workers and taking over the general manager’s office, without being caught.
The thrills really come when, in an attempt to win $1,000 from his employer by creating a publicity stunt to bring business to the department store, he ends up climbing the building. His pal is supposed to be the one performing the stunt, but being chased by a cop throughout the rest of the film prevents him from taking over for Harold, who tries the climb himself. A rather literal way to climb the corporate ladder.
The building is 12 floors, and was filmed at the Brockman Building on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles. This climb is part amazing stunt work, and part amazing trick photography. The way the camera angles move from the first-floor viewpoint, to the upper floors, to finally the top of the building is dizzying and must have created quite a thrilling spectacle for the audiences who saw it in 1923, because it’s still terrific today.
Crowds gather below, and a number of obstacles nearly topple Harold’s nerve-wracking climb, including pigeons, a mouse, office workers hanging out the windows, and a clock face that might not hold his weight.
We see actual traffic below, actual advertisements on the other buildings, and an array of casual observers, important despite their anonymity, to create a visual documentary of the mores, the attitudes, the humor, and the pace of the times in the early 1920s. Tellingly, Lloyd’s having made good has nothing to do with doing well at his job, but because of a get-rich-quick publicity stunt. Lloyd was not just a man of his time, but a man before his time.