Harold Lloyd‘s Safety Last was released this day — April Fool’s Day! — in 1923.
Safety Last is the best known of Lloyd’s features, by virtue of it containing the iconic image of him hanging from the clock at the top of an office building. It is the best known of Lloyd’s “thrill pictures” — comedies in which, by virtue of a crazy set of circumstances, Lloyd finds himself on the outside of the upper floors of a skyscraper, unable to get down.
Safety Last was neither the first nor the last of these distinctive Lloyd vehicles. His first had been the 1919 one reel picture Look Out Below. This was later followed up by High and Dizzy (1920), and Never Weaken (1921). This was tried and true stuff for Lloyd. It was inevitable that he would get around to making a feature length comedy out of such business.
Safety Last casts Lloyd as a department store clerk who wants to make good with his boss by cooking up a publicity stunt. He hires a Human Fly (professional stunt climber) to climb all the way to the top of their seventeen story building from the outside. Unfortunately, the guy he hired runs into some trouble with the police, and Harold, who’s never done this before, and certainly isn’t properly dressed or equipped, has to do the climbing himself. The hair-raising climax comprises at least a third of the picture. Indeed it is its whole point. That image of Lloyd hanging from the clock ranks with Chaplin getting caught in the gears and cogs of Modern Times as an eloquent symbol of the modern predicament. A man hanging by his maimed hand from a business tower, at the mercy of a contraption that regulates time. Unlike Chaplin, however, Lloyd doesn’t intend it that way. If a man must enslave himself to win the things society tells him he ought to have, Lloyd tells us, so be it! “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!” Nevertheless, you can’t help but cheer for him on that building. If most of Lloyd’s goals are illusions, the objective of escaping a horrible death seems very reasonable.
For more on silent comedy film history including great Harold Lloyd classics like “Safety Last” see my please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube