Don’t look down: 100 years of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy</span>
Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

It is one of the most famous images in film history: a bespectacled man dangles from the hands of a broken clock, 12 storeys above the Los Angeles traffic. The climax of Harold Lloyd’s slapstick suspense masterpiece Safety Last!, which is about to celebrate its centenary, is also a defining image of the city, much like the construction workers perched on a steel beam in the 1932 news photograph Lunch Atop a Skyscraper is for New York. They share a sense of the giddy dangers of 20th-century urbanism, and the precarity of the working man.

Harold, the hero of Safety Last!, is just such an ordinary joe: a department store sales clerk struggling to keep his job, while boasting of a big promotion in letters home to his sweetheart, Mildred. When he spends his entire pay cheque on a gift for Mildred, Harold forlornly imagines his lunch disappearing dish by dish. Mildred surprises him by coming to visit, which is when he has the brainwave of “climbing” to the very top of the building as a romantic stunt – emphasis on the stunt as he plans to use his agile friend “Limpy Bill” as a double. In the film’s perfect final 20 minutes, Harold makes the ascent alone, beset by perils including a flock of birds, a barking dog, a broken flagpole and even a gunshot. It amounts to some of the most nerve-racking funny business ever put on screen. Variety announced: “It will make all of the nation laugh.”

Related: Commuters, cranes and party crowds: the (very quiet) comeback of silent film

Harold is played by Harold Lloyd, an extraordinary screen comic who made more than 250 features. His most popular films see him playing a relatable everyday chap, a boyish bespectacled character who strives for success and yearns for romance. Safety Last!, with its record-breaking box office, is his most celebrated work, but it came in a run of beloved silent and sound features.

Suzanne Lloyd, the star’s granddaughter, will never forget the first time she saw the film. It was also the moment she realised that the man she called Dad had been a huge movie star before she was born. She had always assumed he was a cameraman, because he was such a keen photographer, but aged about 10 she accompanied Lloyd to a screening. “My palms were sweating, and I was like: ‘God, this is dangerous. This guy’s crazy.’”

Suzanne found it hard to identify the man on screen as her grandfather, but that news was at least reassuring. “He was sitting two rows behind me. I’m turning around going: ‘If Dad’s sitting right there, and this guy says: “This is Dad”, well, then he must end up OK.’”

Suzanne, now 71, was raised by her maternal grandparents, Lloyd and Mildred Davis, his co-star in this and 14 other films. “I went to a school where children’s parents were movie stars, you know? Randolph Scott, Jimmy Stewart, Bill Wellman’s kids, I mean, they were all in my class, but he was different.” Davis retired from acting after this film – the two were married in February 1923, just after they finished shooting. As Suzanne well knew when she recognised her face in Safety Last!, her grandmother was terrified of heights. To shoot the scene in which Mildred leans out of high window, two men were on hand to hold on to her feet, and Suzanne presumes her grandfather bribed her with a gift to stay the course.

Lloyd had a penchant for high-rise comedy – as seen previously in films such as High and Dizzy and Never Weaken – as well as a fondness for real-life stunts. Suzanne remembers attending a screening of Safety Last! at Cannes in the 1960s. When the film finished, the septuagenarian Lloyd climbed on the railings of the balcony to greet the audience – much to Davis’s horror.

Lloyd had the idea for Safety Last! when he saw Bill Strother (Limpy Bill in the film) perform a “human spider” act, climbing up a tall building in downtown Los Angeles. “He saw the reaction of the crowds, and he said he had to go around the corner, because he couldn’t handle it. He kept saying: ‘Oh, my God, has that guy fallen yet?’” says Suzanne. “The whole time he’s going: ‘I have to film this. I have to get this type of emotion from the people on the street who are reacting to what this guy is doing.’”

Audiences of 1923 would expect a happy ending, but right from the start Lloyd plants seeds of doubt. The opening scene of the film is a sight gag involving a noose. Elsewhere, Harold is seen playing dead in an ambulance, or seemingly torn limb from limb by the frenetic shoppers in the department store. A policeman is tailing Limpy Bill, and Harold is constantly racing against the clock. It’s a masterclass in building tension, in between the laughs.

Suzanne Lloyd.
Suzanne Lloyd. Photograph: Toby Canham/Getty Images

To fool the audience, Lloyd devised a way of shooting the climb on elevated platforms on the roofs of different buildings in the city. “He always wanted to push the envelope. And he loved the idea of tricking people with the depth of Safety Last!,” says Suzanne. The cleverness of it is that you can see the busy streets below, but you can’t see the safety net, which is just out of shot. When Lloyd teeters on a window ledge, the peril feels real, and it wasn’t entirely safe for the crew. “They were on a platform with a tripod and a camera and the loader and everything else. Those were pretty brave guys.”

Testing the drop, Lloyd pushed a dummy off the platform. “It fell, and he said: “Oh, my God, I’m glad that’s not going to happen to me.” And yet he was working at a disadvantage when it came to grip. Owing to an accident four years earlier, Lloyd was missing part of his right hand and his right thumb and forefinger. When he’s clinging on to a rope or a windowsill, he’s doing so more or less one-handed. “He did so many other stunts with his hand, and he just covered it up and kept going. But that shows in a lot of ways what his real personality was,” says Suzanne. “It was like: ‘OK, we have a situation. We’re going to get over it.’”

Related: Understanding the genius of Chaplin and Harold Lloyd: from the archive, 25 July 1925

That’s the spirit of Lloyd’s character in his films, too. For Suzanne, Safety Last! is a “modern story” about “feelings and how to get a hold of yourself and make yourself better”. The hero may be cowardly, but he’s willing to put himself on the line for the love of his life. There is a realism to the Lloyd persona that resonates to this day, the idea that he is a just an ordinary nerd like the rest of us, who nevertheless finds himself hanging by a clock spring, one piece of bad luck away from crashing into the rush-hour traffic. “You could walk him down the street right now, the way he’s dressed, and you wouldn’t notice him. He would just blend in.”

To celebrate the centenary of Safety Last! on 1 April, there will be screenings across the country including a performance with live music in Bristol, and Suzanne hopes it will bring a new generation of fans to bite their nails in front of this unforgettable film. “I am so thrilled. I hope people get their grandmothers or grandfathers or uncles, and they bring the kids and they go into the cinema and see this. It’s only there for one day.”

Slapstick festival screens Safety Last! at St George’s Bristol on 1 April with live musical accompaniment, and a special guest host. Picturehouse Cinemas is also showing the film nationwide on 1 April