Safety Last!

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Safety Last!
Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer
Sam Taylor
Produced by Hal Roach
Written by Hal Roach
Sam Taylor
Tim Whelan
H. M. Walker
Jean Havez (uncredited)
Harold Lloyd (uncredited)
Starring Harold Lloyd
Mildred Davis
Bill Strother
Noah Young
Westcott Clarke
Distributed by Pathé Exchange
Release dates
  • April 1, 1923 (1923-04-01)
Running time
73 minutes
Country United States
Language Silent film
English intertitles
Budget $121,000[1]
Box office $1.5 million[2][3]

Safety Last! is a 1923 romantic comedy silent film starring Harold Lloyd. It includes one of the most famous images from the silent film era: Lloyd clutching the hands of a large clock as he dangles from the outside of a skyscraper above moving traffic. The film was highly successful and critically hailed, and it cemented Lloyd's status as a major figure in early motion pictures. It is still popular at revivals, and it is viewed today as one of the great film comedies.[4]

The film's title is a play on the common expression, "safety first", which places safety as the priority to avoid accidents. Lloyd performed some of his climbing stunts despite losing a thumb and forefinger in an accident while making a film four years earlier.


The film opens in 1922 with Harold Lloyd (the character has the same name as the actor) behind bars. His mother and his girlfriend, Mildred, are consoling him as a somber official and priest show up. The three of them walk toward what looks like a noose. It then becomes obvious they are at a train station and the "noose" is actually a trackside pickup hoop used by train crews to receive orders without stopping, and the bars are merely the ticket barrier. He promises to send for his girlfriend so they can get married once he has "made good" in the big city. Then he is off.

He gets a job as a salesclerk at the De Vore Department Store, where he has to pull various stunts to get out of trouble with the picky and arrogantly self-important head floorwalker, Mr. Stubbs. He shares a rented room with his pal "Limpy" Bill, a construction worker.

When Harold finishes his shift, he sees an old friend from his hometown who is now a policeman walking the beat. After he leaves, Bill shows up. Bragging to Bill about his supposed influence with the police department (when in reality he merely knows that this particular policeman would not arrest either of them for a harmless prank, since Harold is an old friend of his), he persuades Bill to knock the policeman backwards over him while the man is using a callbox. When Bill does so, he knocks over the wrong policeman. To escape, he climbs up the façade of a building. The policeman tries to follow, but cannot get past the first floor; in frustration, he shouts at Bill, "YOU'LL DO TIME FOR THIS! THE FIRST TIME I LAY EYES ON YOU AGAIN, I'LL PINCH YOU!"

Meanwhile, Harold has been hiding his lack of success by sending his girlfriend expensive presents he cannot really afford. She mistakenly thinks he is successful enough to support a family and, with his mother's encouragement, takes a train to join him. In his embarrassment, he has to pretend to be the general manager, even succeeding in impersonating him to get back at Stubbs. While going to retrieve her purse (which Mildred left in the manager's office), he overhears the real general manager say he would give $1,000 to anyone who could attract people to the store. He remembers Bill's talent and pitches the idea of having a man climb the "12-story Bolton building", which De Vore's occupies. He gets Bill to agree to do it by offering him $500. The stunt is highly publicized and a large crowd gathers the next day.

When a drunkard shows "The Law" (the policeman who was pushed over) a newspaper story about the event, the lawman suspects Bill is going to be the climber. He waits at the starting point despite Harold's frantic efforts to get him to leave. Finally, unable to wait any longer, Bill suggests Harold climb the first story himself and then switch his hat and coat with Bill, who will continue on from there. After Harold starts up, the policeman spots Bill and chases him into the building. Every time Harold tries to switch places with Bill, the policeman appears and chases Bill away. Each time, Bill tells his friend he will meet him on the next floor up. Eventually, Harold reaches the top, despite his troubles with a clock and some hungry pigeons, and kisses his girl. She continues to believe that he's general manager of De Vore.


Reception and legacy[edit]

The New York Times gave Safety Last! a very positive review.[5]

The Library of Congress added Safety Last! to its National Film Registry in 1994. A contemporary review in Photoplay predicted the film's future: "This new Harold Lloyd farce will became a classic of its kind, or we will miss our guess. For it is the bespectacled comedian's best effort to date." "This is easily one of the big comedies of the year. It is seven-reels in length—but it speeds by with the rapidity of a corking two-reeler," the reviewer concluded.[6]

The American Film Institute nominated the film for both their 1998 and 2007 lists of AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies. It was also nominated for AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs. It placed #97 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills.

References in popular culture[edit]

  • In 1962, the "dangling from the skyscraper" scene was included in Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy,[7] a compilation movie produced by Harold Lloyd himself. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and created a renewal of interest in the comedian by introducing him to a new generation.
  • The 1972 Dad's Army episode "Time on My Hands" features men hanging precariously from the hands of a clock tower.
  • In the 1983 martial arts film Project A, Jackie Chan also paid an homage to Lloyd (whom he has frequently cited as an influence on his work) by falling from a clock tower.
  • The film Back to the Future pays homage to Harold Lloyd "dangling from the skyscraper" by having one of the film's stars Christopher Lloyd (no relation to Harold) hang from a clock tower as part of the plot.[8] The dangling scene was also alluded to earlier in the film during the pan of Doc Brown's (Christopher Lloyd's character) laboratory as a picture is shown of a clock featuring a tiny puppet of Lloyd hanging from the hand of the clock. In addition, a meta-reference appears in the opening scene of Back to the Future, in the form of a physical table clock which depicts the Safety Last! scene.
  • The 1991 comedy film Oscar paid a direct homage to the scene, recreating it on its poster, where the main character (played by Sylvester Stallone) hangs from a clock.
  • In Martin Scorsese's 2011 film Hugo, a portion of the scene with Lloyd hanging from the clock is shown when the main characters sneak into a movie theater. Later, the title character Hugo similarly hangs from the hands of a large clock on a clock tower to escape a pursuer.

Home video[edit]

The film was released in multiple inceptions on home video, both on VHS and DVD. It was released via the Criterion Collection on DVD & Blu-ray on June 18, 2013.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ David Parkinson. "Safety Last!". Empire. Retrieved 25 October 2015. 
  2. ^ rentals in US and Canada - see Variety list of box office champions for 1923
  3. ^ Quigley Publishing Company "The All Time Best Sellers", International Motion Picture Almanac 1937-38 (1938) p 942 accessed April 19, 2014
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Safety Last." July 3, 2005. June 21, 2013.
  5. ^ "The Screen", The New York Times, April 2, 1923
  6. ^ "The National Guide to Motion Pictures Saves Your Picture Time and Money". Photoplay (New York: Photoplay Publishing Company). June 1923. Retrieved August 21, 2015. 
  7. ^ Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy at the Internet Movie Database
  8. ^ at the American Movie Classics
  9. ^ "Safety Last", Criterion Collection, June 18, 2013

External links[edit]