skip navigation
Story of Film - September 2013
Remind Me
,Safety Last!

Safety Last!

A clever scenario brilliantly told, Safety Last! (1923) is a gem in comedian Harold Lloyd's classic comic oeuvre packed with endlessly imaginative sight gags. From the opening bit where The Boy (Lloyd) appears to be behind jail bars, apparently waiting to trudge off to the hangman (he is actually behind the gate at a train station), Safety Last! is a succession of buoyant, cleverly conceived visual japes. These comic larks illustrate the powers of the imagination to counteract the humdrum and oppressive circumstances of modern living that made Lloyd a consistently popular everyman hero of the silent age.

Lloyd stars as a naive lad from the small town of Great Bend, in love with a Girl (Mildred Davis, Lloyd's real-life wife) whose heart is tied to his purse strings. The Boy sets off for the big city and dreams of wealth, but once in the shining metropolis finds himself scrambling to pay the rent while slaving away as a department store clerk. In daily letters back home to his fiance the Boy pretends that he is a financial tycoon, a situation from which Lloyd draws innumerable gags.

Always anxious to please, Lloyd's comic persona in Safety Last! was that of an eager worker in bookish spectacles and straw boater whose efforts to perform the basic chores of daily life are continually sabotaged. Safety Last! is considered to be among Lloyd's finest pictures, and it shattered many a box office record upon its original release. Safety Last! also featured one of the most famous images in movie history, of Lloyd dangling from the hands of an enormous clock at the top of a Los Angeles high-rise, an image familiar even to those who have never seen the film.

The clock face stunt was inspired by Bill Strothers' performance of a similar human fly act, discovered by Lloyd while walking in Los Angeles one day. Strothers' grand finale to the stunt involved him riding a bicycle along the rooftop's edge and then standing on his head on a flagpole. Lloyd was deeply impressed by the event, remarking, "It made such a terrific impression on me, and stirred my emotions."

Lloyd immediately placed Strothers under contract at the Hal Roach studio, and cast him in Safety Last! as "Limpy Bill," the Boy's loveable roommate and construction worker who also has human fly capabilities.

Many of the interior scenes for Safety Last! were shot at the L.A. department store Ville de Paris, which was owned by a close friend of producer Hal Roach. Each evening when the store closed the crew would set up their equipment and then work during the midnight hours.

Like the hayseed Boy, Lloyd hailed from a small town -- Burchard, Nebraska -- and his humble beginnings inspired him to work aggressively for his success in Hollywood. Lloyd's film debut was in a 1913 Edison Company picture as an Indian, a bit part that netted the first-time actor three dollars. Working with independent producer Hal Roach as his first real star, Lloyd later devised his first comedic invention, Lonesome Luke, a character loosely tailored around Charlie Chaplin's successful Tramp. Luke was featured in around 70 films before Lloyd became bored with that comic persona and created a new, highly profitable incarnation, as the spectacles-wearing everyman he called "the glasses character."

That character was featured in Lloyd's popular films of the Twenties, including Girl Shy (1924), The Freshman (1925), For Heaven's Sake (1926) and The Kid Brother (1927), films which were hyped in the trade papers with the tag "It's a Lloyd film -- that's enough." A highly adaptable comic character, this man with glasses had the consistent features of ambition and optimism, but could change dramatically from film to film: a rich man in one film, a poor one in the next. What remained consistent was the well-oiled pace and economical gags of the Lloyd style of comedy that made him one of the most successful entertainers of his day.

Director: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Producer: Hal Roach
Screenplay: Tim Whelan, Sam Taylor, H.M. Walker, Jean C. Havez
Cinematography: Walter Lundin
Production Design: Fred Guiol
Cast: Harold Lloyd (The Boy), Mildred Davis (The Girl), Bill Strothers (The Pal: Limpy Bill), Noah Young (The Law), Westcott Clarke (The Floorwalker: Mr. Stubbs).

by Felicia Feaster


TCM Shopping
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) (Criterion Collection)
  • With it's stunning camerawork and striking... more info
  • $25.97
  • Regularly $39.95
  • Add to cart
  • Vampyr (Criterion Collection)
  • With Vampyr, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor... more info
  • $29.95
  • Regularly $39.95
  • Add to cart
  • The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari
  • In 1920, one brilliant movie jolted the... more info
  • $17.95
  • Regularly $24.95
  • Add to cart
  • Metropolis (1927)
  • Perhaps the most famous and influential of... more info
  • $21.95
  • Regularly $29.95
  • Add to cart