Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Safety Last!


I guess everybody has films they just missed. I’ve been a huge Harold Lloyd fan since I attended a small seminar with him at Michigan State in 1966. I’ve seen dozens of his two-reelers, and all his features … except this one, his most famous. The picture of him dangling from the clock high on the side of a building in downtown LA is one of the most enduring images from the silent era. Now I’ve finally seen it, and it’s terrific. He never sets out to climb the building, it’s always just “one more floor,” and his human fly buddy will take over. But it never happens. And on each floor there is a new and brilliantly inventive challenge, from pigeons to painters.

Mr. Lloyd lied to us that day so long ago, sort of. He left us with the impression that there was nothing between him and a 12-story fall but a pile of mattresses. The mattress part was true, but the fall would have been more like 10 or 15 feet, because the wall he was climbing was a fake, built on the roof of a tall building and shot from an angle to give you the illusion that he was higher from a solid surface than he was. And the long shots were of a stunt man. Not that I’m minimizing his accomplishment. The first time they dropped a dummy on the mattresses it bounced off and over the side of the building. And, like Buster Keaton, he was incredibly strong. He did do all that what we would call free climbing today, up vertical and overhanging faces with no ropes. And he did it all with eight fingers! A few years before he had been fiddling with what he thought was a prop bomb. It turned out to be real, and blew off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. For the rest of his career he concealed it with a glove or a prosthetic.