Safety Last! is a 1923 silent romantic comedy directed by Fred C. Newmayer and Sam Taylor. Often considered one of the greatest comedies of the 20th century, Safety Last! is most renowned for its famously dangerous scene featuring Harold Lloyd hanging off the hand of a clock tower.
Although less frequently recognized than both his peers Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd is another talented precursor to the future Hollywood action star. Dangerous stunts are a staple of the action genre, and Lloyd demonstrates his own abilities to both charm and terrify audiences in the film via numerous stunts in Safety Last!.
Although often generalized as a silent romantic comedy, the film’s thrilling stunt work and Lloyd’s charismatic lead character, the boy, are true examples of foreshadowing for the future of Hollywood and its emergence of action films in the latter half of the 20th century.
The film centers on the financially motivated adventures of the boy, played by Harold Llyod, and opens at a train station where the boy departs on a train to the big city. He then begins a job as a sales clerk in a department store earning a modest income while sending his girlfriend, played by Mildred Davis, expensive presents via mail to give the illusion he is better off financially than he really is. Overjoyed about her boyfriend’s newfound success, the girlfriend decides to surprise the boy by visiting him unannounced in the city. Desperate to produce the income he has been boasting about to his girlfriend, the boy offers to climb up the side of the 12-story Bolton Building as a form of advertising for the department store in exchange for $1,000. His general manager agrees to the plan, sending the boy into life threatening situation after situation, putting both his reputation and, more importantly, his life at risk as he attempts to complete the dangerous task.
Unconventional when compared to the action films of modern Hollywood, Safety Last!’s simple premise makes it a remarkably low stakes film, if not for the endearing performance by Lloyd as the boy. Through charm, wit, and a thrilling go-getter attitude, Lloyd injects Safety Last! with the charisma and humanity necessary for investing audiences. This is not much different than the action heroes of cinema today. These heroes typically model extremely masculine behaviors which may contrast with Lloyd’s status as an everyday man, but his cunning reflexes and ability to think on his feet make him a respectable male hero for the time. This is further emphasized by his willingness to risk his life in deadly situations, another characteristic of most action heroes.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of Safety Last! is its exhilarating examples of stunt work performed by Lloyd himself. Whether it be standing with a leg on two different moving vehicles, scaling the side of twelve-story building, or dangling over a city street by the hand of clock tower, Lloyd pushes stunt work to exciting new standards. These action-set pieces, designed with the intention of releasing an audience’s adrenaline, are integral pieces of the modern action film. In the most wildly remembered scene from the film, the boy is only a few floors away from completing his ascent up the side of the Bolton Building when his friend, Limpy, accidentally bumps into a board covering a window ledge the boy is momentarily perched upon during his climb. Loosing grasp of the window ledge, the boy falls backwards nearly plummeting to his death, but grabs onto the hand of a clock tower to his right. Dangling above the bustling city streets, the boy struggles to find his footing on the surface clock as the face of the clock unhinges from the rest of the tower, giving way to the boy’s strenuous weight in a heart stomping moment perfect pacing (seen below).
The audience is compressed by adrenaline as the boy’s fate is put into question. This set piece is then followed more set pieces involving by a loose rope, a difficult overhang, and a spinning structure on top of the building. Each set piece transitions into another set pieces seamlessly, demonstrating how to effectively stage an action sequence. This method of staging is a vital piece of the action film’s formula and great determiner in a film’s overall success and ability to entertain audiences.
Although it is a film which centers itself in comedy and romance more-so than the action, Safety Last! features several key pieces which would influence later action films. The most important of these being the stunt work, the staging of action, and Harold Lloyd’s charismatic performance as the boy. These three factors alone create a thrilling film which would still rival the excitement of action films for years to come.