Tonight: Harold Lloyd in the silent four-star comedy classic Safety Last!
With musical accompaniment from our own Robert Israel on the piano!
Harold Lloyd was one of the most popular stars of the silent era and—by the mid-1920s—the most successful, making movies that outgrossed Chaplin, Fairbanks and Rin Tin Tin.
The most famous of these—made in 1922—was Safety Last!
Even people who have never seen a silent film are familiar with the image of Lloyd hanging from that clock atop a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles.
It is the single most famous, most enduring image of any silent film ever made. It’s still that powerful.
It’s powerful because it’s real!
There were no special effects, glass shots, hanging miniatures or rear screen projection used in the making of this picture.
Harold Lloyd really climbed that building.
Well, sort of.
A stunt double was used on the long shots.
But the rest was Harold—hanging on for dear life—two and three stories above the padded rooftop below, shot at an angle so that he seemed to be much higher.
And he did it all with one hand!
Working for Hal Roach, Lloyd had made nearly 100 one- and two-reel shorts as a Chaplinesque character called Lonesome Luke before he came up with the All-American, naïve but always optimistic character with the horn-rimmed glasses.
He epitomized the go-getter enthusiasm of the postwar era that defined the Roaring ’20s.
But Lloyd’s career almost ended at the start of the decade when a freak accident—the explosion of a supposedly harmless prop bomb—blew off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
Recovering from the accident, Lloyd proved as indomitable as the character he portrayed on the screen. He resumed his career and, despite the physical handicap, he continued to build on his reputation as a physically adept comedian.
The idea for Safety Last! was inspired by an accident in July, 1922 when Lloyd happened upon a group of people in downtown Los Angeles staring upward at a man climbing the side of the Brockman Building. It was a publicity stunt.
This unnerved Lloyd.
Despite having made several two- and three-reel daredevil comedies, including Look Out Below (1919), High and Dizzy (1920) and Never Weaken (1921), Lloyd was afraid of heights. He was acrophobic.
He made these films precisely because they frightened him. If he found them frightening, he reasoned, so would his audience.
Lloyd watched the man scale the side of the building.
“And when he got up there,” Lloyd said, “he had a bicycle and he rode it around the edge of the building. Then he got on the flagpole, and he stood on his head.”
This daredevil was an unemployed steelworker named Bill Strother, who billed himself as the Human Spider.
Lloyd took him to meet Hal Roach, who put him under contract.
Then Lloyd and Roach began planning a film around the stunt Lloyd had just witnessed.
The shooting on Safety Last! began on September 17, 1922—atop the roof of the International Bank Building at the corner of Temple and Spring.
They shot the climax of the film first and wrote the story around it afterward.
Bill Strother, “The Human Spider,” appears in the film as Harold’s pal.
Mildred Davis plays the female lead. She appeared in several of Lloyd’s films.
Safety Last! was completed in January 1923.
And after several previews—Roach believed in previewing his films to get audience reaction—the picture opened on April Fool’s Day.
On April 2, Hal Roach sent Harold Lloyd a telegram from New York saying:
“Safety Last! opened to bigger business than any previous picture!
“Theater manager and audience delighted! Regards to everybody. Hal.”
Safety Last! had cost $22,000 to produce.
At a time when theater tickets could be had for a dime, the film grossed an incredible $1,588,000.
The net profit, after prints and advertising, was $1,278,000. That amounted to an astounding 580 percent return on investment.
Few films in the history of Hollywood would match such success.
At the conclusion of the picture, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady announced that she was leaving Roach to make movies elsewhere.
Lloyd was stunned.
“I needed the prospect of losing her to bring home the fact, apparent for months to everyone else...that I loved her,” Lloyd said.
They were married on February 10, 1923, while Safety Last! was still being previewed. So he got the girl at the end of the picture—in the movie and in real life too!
They remained together the rest of their lives.
Along with our feature, we have a Harold Lloyd short—High and Dizzy, from 1920—before Lloyd lost a part of his hand.
And then—from 1923—