The image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the arm of a clock is one that made me become more aware of the world of silent cinema. I had seen it long before I even got around to watching the film, yet it always struck a fascination in me. Just how did he do that? Since then, I’ve acquired a little more Silent Era knowledge, but the personal sense of awe over how something so visually enchanting was captured onto nitrate had never come close to vanishing.
In Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd plays The Boy, who ventures into the big city in order to earn enough money to marry The Girl, played by Mildred Davis (whom Lloyd married just a couple months prior to the film’s release in 1923). Amid all the twists and turns, he ends up devising a stunt in order to gather more publicity for the department store where he’s employed. However, things don’t end up according to plan.
Recently, I had read about the human fly craze of the 1920s, where people would scale the exteriors of buildings and reach dizzying heights. It eventually found its way into the production of Safety Last! and created one of the most iconic scenes in cinema—not to mention one of the most stressful to watch!
In the film, The Boy has no choice but to start climbing the wall of a frighteningly tall building, and eventually ends up holding onto dear life while helplessly swaying from the clock’s arm. Cars and people are pictured as minuscule from below, and it’s enough to bring about a case of vertigo. There are various sources that will tell (and show) you just how this entire scene was filmed, so I won’t go into any detail about it. Unless you have a really keen eye for perspective that can’t be ignored, you are likely to get caught up with the action by way of the alternating shots and angles—hoping that poor Harold will get out of this mess safely, for goodness’ sake. What personally comes to mind regarding the aesthetics of this scene is trompe l’oeil (French meaning “to fool the eye”), which is a term often used to describe illusions in art. I like to think that such illusions found especially in silent film give way to a realm that is much more magical: one where you’re left feeling satisfied with seeing what unfolds as your mind sees it.