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Safety Last!

Safety Last!

By Patrick Samuel • October 29th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Hal Roach Studios

Original release: April 1st, 1923
Running time: 73minutes

Directors: Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
Writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott Clarke

Safety Last

Iconic. Pertaining to something which has a conventional formulaic style. It’s a word we tend to see thrown around a lot when discussing images in film or in print. Whether it’s something as old and timeless as that shot of robot Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the poster for Steven Spielberg’s Jaws or as recent as Ghostface’s mask in Scream or the spinning top at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, they can all be described as “iconic” as they’re images we see and immediately recognise and associate with the films and its characters – even if they’re not being used in connection with them, for example; to advertise something else or to even parody the works in question. They’re images that have become a firm part of popular culture, and one of the most enduring images we have comes from this 1923 Harold Lloyd classic.

It’s a silent film which can also be described as a romantic comedy and at the beginning it seems like Lloyd is a man in prison facing his final hours. Distraught over what’s about to take place, his mother and girlfriend (Mildred Davis) can be seen consoling him as a sombre looking priest arrives. In the background we a noose hanging. As we’re busy soaking in the unfolding story it’s then revealed that the filmmakers have been tricking us so far; playing with our reliance that images we see on screen are true representations of what’s happening in the story when in fact Lloyd is really at a train station. The bars we saw at the beginning weren’t at all in a prison but at the ticket office and the noose we saw dangling was actually a trackside pickup hoop used by train crews to receive orders without having to stop.

The real story is that Lloyd is off to the big city to make a success out of himself and he’s sad to be leaving behind his loved ones. Once he’s arrived there though he finds himself a job as a salesclerk at the De Vore Department store. In his apartment, which he shares with construction worker “Limpy” Bill (Bill Strother), they never have enough money, but to make matters worse, Lloyd pawns his roommate’s phonograph, buys a lavaliere and writes to his girlfriend telling her that he’s a manager at the De Vore. Lloyd remains reluctant to let her know about his circumstances, preferring to have her believe he’s really a success in the big city. He’s promised her that when he makes good they’ll get married.

Safety Last

The iconic scene in Safety Last! comes later on when Lloyd overhears his manager saying he’ll give $1000 to anyone who can attract a large crowd to the store. After confirming this is indeed true, Lloyd calls his friend and asks him if he’ll climb the twelve floors of the Bolton Building for $500, thinking he’ll split the money with him and use the rest to get married, but even with this well-thought out plan, things still manage to go awry. Earlier on, Bill pushed over a policeman as part of a misguided prank orchestrated by Lloyd, and now that same policeman is standing in front of the Bolton Building.

Lloyd ends up having to climb it himself and the latter half of Safety Last! consists of him going floor by floor until he manages to reach the clock at the top. Lloyd puts his daredevil stunt work to great use in this wonderful scene as we watch him dangling precariously whilst holding onto the clock hands high above a busy city street and then later on getting his leg caught on a giant spring. Even if we know nothing else of Lloyd as an actor or of the film itself, we know this image because we’ve seen it hundreds of times either paid homage to, parodied or simply imitated in other movies or photo shoots. It’s as powerful as it was the day it was filmed.

As a film Safety Last! is certainly charming and a clever piece of filmmaking that first of all tries to play fast and loose with our perceptions and then moves on to thrill us with some great stunt work, even if we’d already seen Lloyd climbing up the front of a building in Ask Father (1919). There’s much to make us smile and even gasp as Lloyd swings back and forth on a rope from the top of the building towards the end, proving that Safety Last! has a lot more to offer fans of silent cinema than just its most famous scene. So, if you get a chance, do have a look. It’s been with us for 90 years so far and I’m sure it’s not going anywhere anytime soon!

Safety Last

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick's work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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