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Retro Cinema – Safety Last!

Retro Cinema – Safety Last!

One of the more annoying aspects of today’s CGI special effects is knowing in advance how the big screen trickery was conceived: some geeks clicked about their computer screens. The genuine wonder of trying to comprehend how a special effect was created has been lost in today’s film.

In comparison, film scholars are still debating how Harold Lloyd achieved the special effects in his 1923 comedy classic SAFETY LAST!  There were no behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the film, nor did the Hollywood media sneak in to record the trickery that was involved. And, ultimately, Lloyd’s movie magic stands the test of time: today’s audiences can view this silent, black-and-white feature in wonder as Lloyd, a seemingly ordinary looking man, does the impossible by climbing the facade of an office building.

In many ways, Lloyd’s reputation rests primarily on SAFETY LAST!, the shot of Lloyd dangling from a giant clock on the side of a building is one of the most iconic images in comedy history. But it is the only iconic image of Lloyd that permeates popular culture. Unlike his contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd never enjoyed the level of scholarly obsession that elevated his comedies to works of art. Part of the problem was Lloyd’s fault he kept his films out of circulation for many years, thus depriving successive generations of fully appreciating his output. Even today, it is difficult to locate his best work for proper review.

If SAFETY LAST! defines Lloyd’s work, it is due to the unique storyline that finds the funnyman as an unlikely replacement for a “human fly” acrobat that is supposed to scale the outside of a 12-story building as part of a publicity stunt. At each level, Lloyd’s character is met with unlikely disruptions pigeons, a mouse going up his leg, windows opening unexpectedly, and the legendary giant clock that comes apart while Lloyd dangles from its arms.

(Indeed, the visceral power of Lloyd’s skyscraper feat obscures the fact that this sequence is only the final third of the film the rest of SAFETY LAST! is a slightly amusing comedy of errors that would never be recalled on its own terms.)

But how did Lloyd achieve the remarkable feat of going up the side of the building? Several explanations were given over the years, but the lack of photographic evidence fails to offer positive confirmation of these theories. There was also the question of a stunt double – and considering that Lloyd was missing his right thumb and index finger (which were blown off in a 1919 film set accident), the idea that he could do such precarious stunt work has been called into doubt.

And here’s where the genius of SAFETY LAST! comes into play. Directors Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, along with their versatile star, created a sophisticated work that defied easily explanation. Inventive camera angles and editing prevent an easy dissection, while the genuine thrill of the (seemingly) dangerous ascension of the office building keeps the viewer too enraptured to pause and wonder how the film was made.

Ultimately, this is where movie magic really works and the lack of a simple solution to the magic of SAFETY LAST! keeps its spell firmly in place, nearly nine decades after it was made.


Phil Hall Phil Hall has enjoyed a three-decade career in the film industry as a journalist, critic, publicist, distributor, festival programmer and actor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Wired, American Movie Classics Magazine and Film Threat. He is the author of seven books, including "The History of Independent Cinema," "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time" and "In Search of Lost Films."



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