A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1923 – Safety Last!

It’s the image. Pure and simple. If you boiled down silent cinema into a collection of images, this would probably be… number two, maybe. Behind the moon with the rocket in the eye. I’m sure there are others right there, but you get my point.

When talking about some of the most iconic images in film, this one will always be mentioned. Which is strange, since most people haven’t even seen the film it’s from. (Hell, I barely even remember the film.)

Harold Lloyd is one of those comedians who, while he has his share of fans, isn’t really remembered as well as Chaplin and Keaton and others are from the silent era. Older folks may cite him as an influence, but you don’t really get too many people being introduced to his stuff nowadays. Though at the time, his name was as big as Chaplin and Keaton. In fact, his film actually made more money than Chaplin’s films did.

Lloyd had a different style to the two of them, so his movies are quite different. He was kind of a mix of Chaplin and Keaton in that – Keaton always did all his own stunts and did these crazy dangerous things and really managed to infuse his movies with these incredible images and wonderfully complex shots. And Chaplin always would be focused on story and characters, and he’d have his gags, and occasionally he’d do something that was a big stunt, but mostly it was about character and emotion and comedy. Lloyd was a bit of both. His movies were more grounded in a narrative, and weren’t gag-based, yet they still had these big chase sequences. I remember the film Skippy from when I did the Oscar Quest, it has this long car chase scene, and the camera is mounted on the car for part of it, which I thought was really innovative for the time, because you never really saw something shot like that, especially not a car chase. A car ride, sure. So Lloyd definitely was a stuntman in his own right as well as a gifted comedian, and that gave way to the famous image we see in the Pic of the Day.

The idea behind the stunt is, in the film, Harold Lloyd works at a department store and is trying to save up enough money to marry his girlfriend. And he’s been pretending he has more money than he does. So she comes out to see him, and he pretends to be the manager of the store. Meanwhile, the real manager offers a thousand bucks to anyone who can get people to come to the store, so Lloyd (having seen his roommate climb a building earlier in the film) offers up that stunt. Meanwhile, through some comic errors, Lloyd ends up being the one who climbs the building, and the clock moment happens as he keeps trying to switch places with his roommate, who is supposed to be doing the stunt.

It’s actually the climax of the film, him hanging from the clock. And then he gets over it, gets to the top, and continues to fool his girlfriend about his status. It’s actually kind of a fucked up message, the lengths he goes through to continue a lie.

But whatever, the image is really iconic, and it’s really the only choice for 1923.

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