Safety Last!

16 05 2010

Harold Lloyd is a somewhat forgotten star of comedies from the silent era. While Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are still namechecked regularly, Lloyd is passed over more often than not.

Yet one of the most enduring images from the first few decades of cinema is undoubtedly the shot of Lloyd hanging from a large clock-face as he dangles several stories above street-level. Taken from his 1923 comedy Safety Last!, this scene is familiar to almost everyone, no matter their familiarity with Lloyd or the film itself.

The bulk of the film is entertaining though hardly noteworthy: the story of the boy trying to impress his girl by pretending to be higher up in the business world food-chain isn’t exactly revolutionary, even for 1923. But it’s all just a set-up for the climax, where Lloyd scales a building with no visible safety precautions.

This final sequence is gripping, to say the least. Yes, a few shots used a stunt double, and yes, Lloyd was above a mattress waiting to cushion a possible fall. Do these facts diminish the spectacle? Certainly not, especially given that it all looks believable enough. He really was that far off the ground, even if a ledge (or, more precisely, the roof of the real building) was only a couple of stories below—a fall was still not at all desirable.

And therein lies the thrill of Safety Last!: no chroma keying or CGI facilitates the spectacle. Instead we have one man determined to wow an audience at any cost. Star and hero were one and the same.

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