Safety Last!

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.

This is my contribution to the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. All posts can be viewed here.

24 thoughts on “Safety Last!

  1. I can hardly watch that scene with Harold Lloyd hanging onto the clock arm. It makes me nervous Every. Single. Time.

    Thanks for including info on the “human fly craze” in the 1920s. I didn’t realize that was a thing!

    And thank you for bringing Harold Lloyd to the Criterion Blogathon party. It’s never a party without Harold!


    • I know what you mean! Every time I watch that scene, it’s as if I’m watching it for the first time all over again: clammy hands pressed to my face in horror and all.

      Sure thing! I had serendipitously come across the information while reading up on Harold’s biography, and apparently it was a popular form of stunt entertainment throughout roughly the first half of the 20th century!

      Oh, it’s sincerely a pleasure! Thank you so much for hosting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m with you. I know how the scene was done, but that actually made me respect it more. Today they would just do it on blue screen. I love Keaton and Chaplin, but Lloyd pulled off some of the best stunts of the classic era.


    • Yes, exactly! It involved elements of danger within itself. I certainly agree—and to think he did such stunts after the accident regarding his hand just increases the wow factor for me.

      Thank you for hosting, by the way! It was a lot of fun participating.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Neat review, Nicole! I’ve been a fan of Harold Lloyd for quite some time, but watched this one for the first time just last year, and loved it. Lots of neat gags and moments to go along with the big clock scene. And no, I didn’t know there was ever a ‘human fly craze’, either!


    • Many thanks for your kind words! Oh yes, the gags are great fun! I definitely wish I could’ve found the time to elaborate more on them for this post. And now I’m glad I decided to include some info about the human fly craze—I didn’t realize that it was a pretty unfamiliar topic!


  4. Great article! Safety Last is my favorite Harold Lloyd film, I can never forget the experience of watching it in a theater with a bunch of audience years ago, sharing the same thrill and excitement, what a magical film.


  5. I finally watched Safety Last when TCM aired a couple years ago. I enjoyed the story that led to to the famous sequence of Lloyd clinging to the arm of that clock. I’d seen that famous image for years, but had never seen the entire film. Enjoyed your look at a true silent classic. :)


  6. Nice review! I had seen some other people climbing buildings in films from the 1920s, but I didn’t know there actually was a man fly craze. When I wrtoe about it in my blog, I called Harold “man lizard” – also perfect, right?
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)


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