Filmsite Movie Review
Safety Last (1923)
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Safety Last (1923) earned Harold Lloyd, the bookish, horn-rimmed glasses, straw-hat-wearing comedian and Everyman hero, his nickname "the King of Daredevil Comedy." Lloyd's films of this period often included timeless gags, pathos, and clever visual elements. The film - Lloyd's fourth full-length feature, was directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, and produced by Hal Roach. Lloyd was one of the three giants of silent comedy, joining Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.

Other Lloyd films that featured the same innocent, bespectacled character included Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925) - his most successful film, For Heaven's Sake (1926), and The Kid Brother (1927) - often considered one of his best films.

This marvelous film - his most notable one - found a naive yet earnest Harold moving to the big city to seek his fortune. His objective was to find a lucrative job and then have his fiancee move to be with him. During his striving efforts, he experienced a series of mishaps and misadventures - often involving acrobatic or dexterous efforts to extricate himself.

It is most remembered for its thrilling, hair-raising climax - a reckless, 'safety last,' (instead of 'safety first', a double entendre) humorous stunt in which Lloyd scaled a 12-story building and found himself hanging off a clock on the side of the skyscraper above busy Los Angeles streets. The famed clock stunt was metaphorically the 1920s tale of many upwardly mobile Horatio Algers climbing upward to attain the American dream.

The scary sequence was deliberately shot with most of the camera compositions including views of the perilous drop behind him. There were no visual/special effects employed during the sequence, such as trick photography, mirrors or glass shots, animation, double exposures, or rear-screen projection. The climb was all the more remarkable because Lloyd had the use of only one gloved hand (in 1919, a prop bomb exploded in his right hand, causing him to lose the thumb and one finger).

[Note: Few people know that a real-life, tragic publicity stunt ahead of the film's debut helped to fuel the popularity of Safety Last (1923) that was released on April 1, 1923. The film's production company Pathe Exchange, hired (for $100 dollars) a real-life 32 year-old 'Human Fly' or steeplejack named Harry F. Young to perform a publicity stunt for Lloyd's new film. With the phrase 'SAFETY LAST' on the back of his shirt, Young began to climb the side of the 10-story Hotel Martinique (on Broadway at 32nd St. in NYC) at 12 noon, on a cold March 6, 1923. Thousands watched from Greeley Square Park, across from Gimbel's Dept. Store, as he was about to reach the top but slipped and fell to his death on the sidewalk below. He died shortly later after being taken to Bellevue Hospital.

In the wake of his death in April 1923, the NY city council outlawed "street exhibitions of a foolhardy character in climbing the outer walks of buildings by human beings." The law sought to "prevent performance in which human life is needlessly imperiled to satisfy insane desire for vainglory or money on the part of those directing or executing that sort of exhibition."]

Plot Synopsis

The Boy's Departure From Great Bend To the City:

In the opening sequence set in 1922, the naive Boy (Harold Lloyd) appeared behind vertical bars and a 'noose' - presumably imprisoning jail bars and a hanging rope before a gallows execution with a cleric present, but he was actually at a train station - a clever visual gag or trick. The bars were the train station's gate barrier or fence, and the noose was merely a track-side pickup hoop used by train crews to receive orders without stopping.

He was preparing to seek his fortune by traveling to the big city from the rural town of Great Bend, promising to send for his fiancee - the Girl (Mildred Davis, Lloyd's future real-life wife - this was the last time he worked with her as his leading lady in a film) after he had 'made good' with fame and fortune. He bid goodbye to his mother and to the Girl:

"Mother, Mildred has promised to come to the city, and marry me - Just as soon as I've made good."

In Los Angeles - In His Shared Apartment:

In the city of Los Angeles, the Boy shared a rented room with his Pal - "Limpy" Bill (Bill Strother, with a real ability as a "Human Spider" act), a very agile construction worker. They were both destitute: "After a few months - 'Limpy Bill', the Boy's Pal - One pocketbook between them, usually empty."

[Note: In July of 1922, Lloyd joined a group of mesmerized spectators gazing up at the Brockman Building on 7th Street in Los Angeles, where Bill Strother performed a death-defying climb up the side of the building. Afterwards, Lloyd persuaded his producer Hal Roach to hire Strother, to act as a similar character in his next film. The nickname 'Limpy' was acquired during the film's production when Strother impatiently decided to climb a 3-story building - in a minor accident, he fell and injured his leg (acquiring a limp).]

In spite of that, the Boy showed off a lavalliere (without a chain) - an expensive gift that he had bought for Mildred. He meekly confessed to Bill that he had pawned off their phonograph player to buy his sweetheart Mildred the lavalliere (that he couldn't afford), and now they had no money to pay their overdue rent ($14 dollars for two weeks) to the landlady. They cleverly hid and dodged from speaking to their landlady by concealing themselves behind coats hanging on the wall.

Meanwhile, the Boy had falsely convinced and misled his girlfriend through positive, embellished letters and expensive gifts sent home, that he was quickly becoming prosperous with multiple business deals.

At the Boy's Department Store Job:

The bookish-looking Boy eventually found work, toiling as a low-paid, menial salesman in the De Vore Department Store at the ladies' fabric cloth counter (on the first floor - literally and figuratively). [The interior store scenes were shot at Ville de Paris, an LA department store. The store's title De Vore could be interpreted as 'devour.'] After arriving early at work for his 8 o'clock shift, he accidentally found himself trapped - inside the locked back of a City Towel Supply delivery truck - and was unable to disembark until he was on a distant side of the city. To get back to his work place in only ten minutes to avoid losing his job, he acrobatically maneuvered through a series of moving obstacles:

  • he jumped onto an overloaded trolley-streetcar before falling off
  • from there, he hopped into two strangers' moving automobiles that went nowhere
  • he also rode in an ambulance by faking a collapse in the street, and then awoke enroute and told the attendant (Charles Stevenson) to drop him off near the store ("Stop the car at the next corner, please")

At the store, the very tardy Boy posed as a dressed-up mannequin, was transported into the store by a black co-worker, punched his time card (after turning the clock back), and for a few moments successfully avoided being scrutinized and detected by the store's haughty and pompous head floorwalker, Mr. Stubbs (Westcott Clarke). However, he was soon found pretending that he was a frog crouching on the floor. In the next sequence set on a Saturday morning during his half-shift at work, the Boy (Harold Lloyd) finally received his paystub for 6 days of work - $15 dollars. He was delayed leaving work by almost an hour due to a fussy, indecisive customer who couldn't make up her mind, and left with only a sample scrap.

A Prank Gone Horribly Wrong With a Cop:

Afterwards, the Boy happened to meet up with old hometown friend Jim Taylor - now a beat policeman. While Jim left to make a phone call at the street corner, the Boy bragged to Bill that he had insider status and "pull" with the cops - while the police officer made a call closeby:

"You'd be surprised at the pull I've got with the cops. I can do anything - and get away with it. I'll prove it to you. I'll kneel down behind and you shove him over backwards. Then watch me square it."

He convinced Bill to help shove and topple Jim, not realizing that a different patrolman was now speaking on the call-box. The Boy's prank backfired miserably when the second cop - the Law (Noah Young) - became enraged over the failed practical joke. Bill escaped by climbing up the side of the building to the roof to elude the cop - as the vengeful Law threatened and vowed to arrest him the next time:


Later, Bill boasted to Harold: "Shucks, you ain't seen nothin' - I could climb one sixteen-stories high - blindfolded."

On the sidewalk outside a jewelry pawn store run by an avaricious owner, Harold noticed a sign for 1/2 off a platinum lavalliere chain (to match the pendant he had sent to Mildred). He used his most recent paycheck to pay for the item (and was charged full price), realizing that he was forgoing a 50 cent "Businessman's Lunch" at the nearby GoodEats restaurant. He imagined the items on a sample food tray that he now couldn't afford fading away and disappearing one by one.

After the receipt of another gift from the Boy, a chain for the pendant (that Mildred thought had been purchased at Tiffany's), the Girl's mother encouraged her to join Harold in the city: "Don't you think it's dangerous for a young man to be alone in the city, with so much money? If I were you, I wouldn't wait. I'd go to him right away." Mildred was easily persuaded.

Harold's Struggles in His Store Job:

In the store, the Boy was "in danger" of being mobbed during a frenzied and chaotic fabric sale - and his clothes quickly became disheveled as they grabbed at him and stacked bolts of fabric. To distract the crazed customers from the counter, he shouted out: "Who dropped that FIFTY DOLLAR BILL?" During the commotion, Stubbs arrived to criticize the Boy's sloppy attire and threatened to call him into the General Manager's private office: ("Go and adjust your apparel, young man. I shall report you to the General Manager").

Mildred's Surprise Visit to the Store: Harold's Pretense of Importance

Meanwhile, Mildred arrived for a surprise visit to the store, kissed and hugged him, and was overjoyed to see him: "We're so PROUD of you, Harold, and your w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l position." The Boy kept up a facade to impress the Girl that he was in a position of magnitude - although it required a highly choreographed balancing act to succeed. He was forced to keep up the pretense that he was one of the store's managerial-level supervisors, but began to confuse and alienate his co-workers when he called them out: "Must I personally supervise every sale that is made in this department?" When Mildred began to suspect that he was just a lowly salesclerk, he again spoke harshly to his co-workers: "Now observe me closely. I will illustrate the correct form of salesmanship."

Harold was handed a COMPLAINT CARD, and instructed to report to the General Manager's Office at once. There, he was criticized and reprimanded for his unkempt appearance: "The idea of working in your shirt sleeves. Think of the shock to your customers - women of culture and refinement. Another complaint of this nature, and we will have to get along without your services. That will be all." As he exited the office, Mildred assumed he was the main supervisor and was visibly impressed - she asked: "I'm just dying to see your office. Please let me look."

He found an opportunity to "peek" into his office when the general manager left, and ushered her into the empty office. They played with the paging machine system by pushing buttons - accidentally summoning a young errand boy and then Stubbs to the office. Harold fooled Stubbs into thinking that he was the store manager by masquerading as the boss while hiding behind a large desk blotter. Before dismissing him, he was also able to reprimand Stubbs by ordering him to stop complaining about the attire of the employees ("STUBBS! I don't wish to be annoyed by any more of your petty complaints about personal appearance - You know, you're no collar ad yourself"). And then, after the general manager returned, the Boy tricked him into believing that he was helping an incapacitated customer who had fainted (the Boy instructed Mildred to sit, "open her mouth and shut your eyes"). Mildred was overwhelmed by Harold's success and exclaimed: "And just think - you've made money enough already for our little home."

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