“As a piece of comic architecture, it’s impeccable,” Orson Welles said of Safety Last! (1923), Harold Lloyd’s best-known work and supreme achievement. He might as well have meant the film’s central structure itself: the fictional Bolton Building, home to the DeVore Department Store and sundry offices for everything from real estate to sporting goods. Over the course of seventy-three minutes, it becomes one of cinema’s great fun houses, every floor teeming with silliness and danger. The first half of the film takes us inside, to a frenetic vision of workplace hell. Lloyd plays a striver from the sticks, slaving behind the fabric counter at the aptly named DeVore, fending off zealous biddies as he tries to get a leg up. For much of the second half, he clings to the outside, climbing up the treacherous facade, encountering a zany array of obstacles—from the believable (a flock of pigeons) to the absurd (a badminton net).
Warding off a fatal date with gravity, he reaches heights of terror and glory beyond his small-town imaginings. Gawkers cheer or jeer as they lean out their windows. “Young man,” scolds a crone who materializes about halfway through his climb, “don’t you know you might fall and get hurt?” Looming above it all is moviedom’s defining timepiece: the giant clock mounted high above the city, whose hands Lloyd clutches, and whose face he destroys.
Ninety years later, the structure of Safety Last!, Lloyd’s fourth full-length feature, is instantly recognizable to the modern viewer. It’s still the template for the contemporary action flick, in which the story sets up a spectacular chase or fight sequence at the end. (Indeed, the plot of Safety Last! was built to accommodate the brick-by-brick ascent of a human fly, a craze of the twenties.) But there are ironies and ambiguities packed into the film, produced by Lloyd’s longtime collaborator Hal Roach and costarring Mildred Davis (whom Lloyd married in February 1923). Safety Last! is a meditation on time and money, on fame and misfortune, that holds up a mirror to the life of its creator.
The opening credits dub Lloyd “the Boy,” though he was almost thirty when Safety Last! was made. Just as frequently, he’s referred to as “Harold,” and even “Harold Lloyd,” as when we glimpse the intimate information on the paystub he receives for his grueling, low-level job at DeVore (“Name: Harold Lloyd, 6 Days @ $15.00”). Due to a snafu, he also winds up being the so-called Mystery Man whom the newspapers say will scale the skyscraper. The tag sticks: why does Lloyd, once as big a silent-comedy draw as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, remain unknown to most?
The scene in which Lloyd dangles from the hands of the big clock is an image for the ages, infiltrating the culture at its high and low points. (It has recently been quoted, verbatim, in Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour installation The Clock and, more loosely, in Sofia Vergara’s TV spot for CoverGirl Outlast Stay Fabulous foundation.) But the name, let alone the biography, of the pale man with the boater and horn-rimmed glasses has faded from collective memory. Some attribute this drop-off to the fact that Lloyd, who owned the rights to every film he starred in, was reluctant to rerelease his oeuvre theatrically or sell it to television (“You don’t control it, for one thing, and they take it into homes”). And clearly a great deal of the Lloyd magic was lost when he started making sound films, beginning with 1929’s Welcome Danger and resulting in eight titles that, though watchable and even interesting, lack the sheer comic authority of his best silent work.
During his silent-feature heyday (1922–28), Lloyd raked it in. As Jeffrey Vance and Suzanne Lloyd’s 2002 book Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian points out, the first of these features, Grandma’s Boy (1922), grossed ten times its $94,412 cost; Dr. Jack was one of the top ten films of that same year, grossing $1,275,423; and Safety Last! grossed over a million and a half dollars. President Harding watched it in the White House. (Verdict: “Loved it!”) Babe Ruth has a cameo in the last Lloyd silent, the marvelous Speedy (1928). Of course, popular taste is no indicator of what art will last. Welles, who knew Lloyd through a shared interest in magic, suspected this slip in stature was due to the disdain of the snooterati: “Harold Lloyd—he’s surely the most underrated [comedian] of them all. The intellectuals don’t like the Harold Lloyd character—that middle-class, middle-American, all-American college boy. There’s no obvious poetry to it.” Yet it’s just this everyman persona that gives Lloyd’s higher slapstick its oomph: his physical prowess was at odds with his wholesome appearance and relatability. Even while being berated as he’s about to lose his grip and fall to his death, Harold will smile and nod politely.
Born in 1893 in small-town Nebraska, Lloyd moved with his family around the state and in Colorado. In real life, he was “middle-American,” but “middle-class” might be a stretch. His ne’er-do-well father, Foxy, was always looking for work (Harold’s mother divorced Foxy in 1910). Lloyd’s life changed when Foxy got hit by a truck and received $3,000 in damages. They moved west, in part so Harold could attend the San Diego School of Expression, which had been started by an actor who had taken Harold under his wing in Omaha. In 1913, he and his father and brother moved to Los Angeles, where he infiltrated the Universal lot by applying makeup, so that the guard would assume he was an actor. He eventually won small acting parts; more significantly, he befriended Roach, another bit actor. Roach formed the Rolin Film Company in 1914, during a Universal strike, and cast Harold in his pictures. Though these were failures, by the following year, Roach was making films for Pathé Exchange, with Lloyd cast as Lonesome Luke, a knockoff of Chaplin’s Tramp. Rolin cranked out sixty-odd Lonesome Luke one- and two-reelers over the next two years. Titles like Luke Lugs Luggage, Lonesome Luke Leans to the Literary, and Lonesome Luke, Plumber attest to the versatility of the concept.
But Lloyd realized that Luke was an artistic dead end, and in 1917 he created the “Glasses Character,” so-called because of his trademark spectacles—which were, in fact, lensless. Lloyd’s articulation (in a 1964 issue of Films and Filming) of their undeniable appeal is opaque: “Someone with glasses is generally thought to be studious and an erudite person to a degree, a kind of person who doesn’t fight or engage in violence, but I did, so my glasses belied my appearance. The audience could put me in a situation with that in mind, but I could be just the opposite to what was supposed.” Talking to an American Film Institute audience in 1969, he said, “In the pictures that I did, I could be an introvert, a little weakling, and another could be an extrovert, the sophisticate, the hypochondriac. They looked alike in appearance, with the glasses, which I guess you’d call a typical American boy.” (One imagines a hinterland stocked with nearsighted striplings.) This may be what Welles meant when he said there was “no obvious poetry” to the Lloyd character. It could be that the poetry is darker than critics realized, an art of concealment: the simple pair of glasses is the uniform that renders his true nature invisible, volatile, subject to change.
In Safety Last!, this poetry finds expression in visual echoes and hectic repetition, the quick metamorphoses (as when Harold cowers from a supervisor by hopping like a frog), and the inside-outside structure. Inside, the Bolton Building is a site of exploitation and lies, where Harold’s personality is debased at the hands of commerce. Viewed from the outside, the building is a palm-sweat factory and metaphor machine—and the only shot at freedom the poor store clerk has. His innermost drives, ambition and lust, have forced him to become a man of action.
The film wrings dozens of gags from the chaos that is Harold’s workday behind the fabric counter—as when, attempting to hand off a parcel to a little old lady amid the throng, he shouts, “Who dropped that fifty-dollar bill?” and the mass of matrons subsides like the Red Sea getting the Moses treatment—but it’s in the final half hour, when Lloyd reluctantly assumes the role of the human fly, that Safety Last! delivers something close to pure pleasure. Watching the extended sequence is like listening to the seamless suite of miniatures on side two of Abbey Road: it’s a climax filled with climaxes. Enter at any point, and there’s no escape. You can as easily divert your gaze from whatever fresh hell Lloyd encounters on his unnervingly vertical journey—an out-flung window, a rodent up the pant leg—as you can click off the stereo when “Mean Mr. Mustard” circles to a close. Each thrill feeds into the next; each gag enhances the viewer’s joyful unease. The only sensible way to stop is to reach the end.
On the top floor of the Bolton Building is the studio of Julian Deriot, theatrical photographer (as the office door informs us). Inside, a man poses with a gun. When Harold reaches that window, hoping to get inside at last, he sees the firearm pointed at him, hears Julian’s flash go off, and scrambles back outside in fear. The presence of this somewhat specialized profession, intruding on Harold’s epic climb, verges on the daffy—until one realizes that it was in just such a studio that Harold Lloyd, star on the make, almost lost it all. On August 24, 1919, having found fame with the Glasses Character, Lloyd posed for publicity shots, holding a prop bomb. The fuse was lit—and it turned out not to be a prop after all. The explosion left him with serious burns, a damaged eye, and a permanently mangled right hand. After he recovered, he wore on set a special glove that covered the loss of his thumb and index finger, prosthetic digits whose motion could be made to look natural. The Glasses Character is stronger—much stronger—than the audience would ever know.
Roach once said, “Harold Lloyd worked for me because he could play a comedian. He was not a comedian. He was the best actor I ever saw being a comedian . . . No one worked harder than he did.” The actor Jobyna Ralston, recalling Lloyd’s gag perfectionism in A Sailor-Made Man, said that a simple scene of “nonchalantly” lighting a cigarette “required over five hours of filming! . . . It is the same in all Lloyd comedies. If genius really is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Harold Lloyd amply rates the title of genius.” A note of condescension rings in these testimonials—as though they are saying that a strong work ethic is no substitute for natural talent. But that’s a naive view of the truth of art-making. Surely it’s worth all the rigor in the world—painstaking camera placement, physically grueling takes, Kubrick-caliber devil-in-the-detailism—to sear into the brains of present and future viewers something as dream-elegant and distressing as a man hanging from a clock at 2:45 in the afternoon.
It should be no surprise, then, that Lloyd’s masterpiece should actually be about the work ethic. In Safety Last!, Harold Lloyd is “Harold Lloyd”: a rural transplant seeking his fortune in the metropolis, all pluck and punctilio. The goal is to earn enough to bring to the city and marry his hometown honey. He mails a pendant to her, sans chain, writing, “I hope to send for you just as soon as I can clear four or five business deals.” It’s a lie, of course: he spends five and a half days a week on the front lines of customer service, routinely being berated by the haughty floorwalker, Stubbs, whose name symbolizes what he does to Harold’s dreams.
Whether the dreams are worth having is the central question. In plot terms, the happy resolution is what one would expect, but Safety Last! is as much a critique as it is a celebration of money. The first scene shows Harold behind bars, about to take “the long, long journey”—a noose is in view. An official and a cleric draw near him; his mother and his sweetheart weep as he’s being led to what we assume is his execution. The setting turns out to be a train station, as the Boy sets off to seek his fortune. It’s a visual hit-and-run so swift that its weirdness doesn’t sink in till later. Did train stations really have gates that looked like prison bars? Were nooselike loops really used to hold slips of paper to be snatched by the conductor? (And hey—why’s that priest in the frame?) In this modern world, wherein bright young things flock to where the jobs are, to earn one’s living is to enter a kind of death.
“The Boy was always early,” a title card announces. Time is of the essence. Accidentally trapped in a towel truck that takes him farther and farther from his infernal place of employment, Harold tries to make it back to work on time, faking an injury to get a free ambulance ride, dressing up as a mannequin to be carried in under the arm of a coworker. He is thus able to turn back the clock to avert punishment. But these are false deaths, fake injuries, acted immobilities. For Harold to succeed, it seems, he needs to tempt mortality in earnest.
Real life intrudes here too. Bill Strother, who plays “the Pal,” wasn’t an actor but an actual human fly, whom Lloyd chanced to see climbing the Brockman Building in Los Angeles. By Lloyd’s account, he repeatedly watched and turned away from the spectacle; in the end, he greeted Strother on the roof of the building to sign him up for a film (just as “the Girl” meets “Harold” on the roof, to live happily ever after). But of course it’s Lloyd, not Strother, who plays the social and literal climber in the climax, and Safety Last! unfolds as a parable for the popular conception of Lloyd the actor: through hard work and “an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he became one of the most successful film artists of his era. (Lloyd, who died in 1971, enjoyed a long retirement from moviemaking, living at Greenacres, his vast Beverly Hills estate, which had twenty-six bathrooms; it is now the home of mogul Ron Burkle.)
Before Harold can plant his shoes firmly on the roof of the Bolton Building, he bumps his head on an anemometer and does a dazed dance along the ledge—a hilarious, perspiration-provoking meander. Right before he falls, his foot slips into a conveniently located length of rope, and in an instant his body swings swiftly through the air, a human pendulum anchored by a bannerless flagpole. Placed inside a topper of a gag, the “typical American boy” turns into a parody of the Stars and Stripes—a flag, perhaps, commemorating all those who never succeeded in climbing their way to the top.
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days (2008) and the literary editor at Amazon Publishing. His writing on film has appeared in Cinema Scope, The Believer, Moving Image Source, the Village Voice, and elsewhere. He lives in New York City.