Safety Last!

Safety Last! is a 1923 American silent romantic comedy 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.[5]

Safety Last!
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred C. Newmeyer
Sam Taylor
Produced byHal Roach
Written byH. M. Walker (titles)
Jean Havez (uncredited)
Harold Lloyd (uncredited)
Story byHal Roach
Sam Taylor
Tim Whelan
StarringHarold Lloyd[1]
CinematographyWalter Lundin
Edited byT. J. Crizer
Distributed byPathé Exchange
Release date
  • April 1, 1923 (1923-04-01) (US)
Running time
73 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.5 million[3][4]

The film's title is a play on the common expression, "safety first", which places safety as the priority to avoid accidents, especially at workplaces. Lloyd performed some of the climbing stunts himself, despite having lost a thumb and forefinger four years earlier in a film accident.

Safety Last! is one of many works from 1923 that notably entered the public domain in the United States in 2019, the first time any works have done so in 20 years.[6]


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, 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.



Lloyd hanging from a giant clock on the corner of a building became an iconic image for him, but it was achieved with a certain amount of film trickery. Lloyd performed most of his own stuntwork, but a circus performer was used when The Boy hangs by a rope, and a stunt double sometimes Bill Strother, who played "Limpy" Bill and was a steeplejack who inspired the sequence when Lloyd saw him climbing was used in long shots. A number of different buildings from 1st Street to 9th Street in downtown Los Angeles, all of different heights, were used, with sets built on their roofs to match the facade of the main building, the International Bank Building at Temple and Spring Streets. In this way the illusion of Lloyd climbing higher and higher up the side of one building was created (although the streetscapes seen beyond the sets are noticeably different at different stages of the climb).[7]

Stuntman Harvey Parry also appeared in the climactic sequence, a fact he revealed only after Lloyd's death. He discussed at length how the stunts were achieved in the 1980 Thames Television series Hollywood.[8]

Reception and legacy

The New York Times gave Safety Last! a very positive review.[9]

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.[10]

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.

The image of a man dangling from a clock face is so indelibly linked with Safety Last! that even the most oblique references inevitably recall the film simply by association. Examples (explicitly or implicitly acknowledged) include:

  • In 1962, the "dangling from the skyscraper" scene was included in Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy,[11] 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.
  • The 1978 film version of the John Buchan story The Thirty Nine Steps features Richard Hannay (Robert Powell) hanging from the minute hand on the clock face of Big Ben.
  • 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 1985 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.[12] 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

The film was released in multiple versions on home video, both on VHS and DVD. It was released via the Criterion Collection on DVD & Blu-ray on June 18, 2013.[13]

See also


  1. Safety Last! at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. David Parkinson. "Safety Last!". Empire. Retrieved October 25, 2015.
  3. rentals in US and Canada - see Variety list of box office champions for 1923
  4. Quigley Publishing Company "The All Time Best Sellers", International Motion Picture Almanac 1937-38 (1938) p 942 accessed April 19, 2014
  5. Ebert, Roger. "Safety Last." July 3, 2005. June 21, 2013.
  6. Douglas, Nick (April 13, 2018). "These 1923 Copyrighted Works Enter the Public Domain in 2019". Life Hacker. Retrieved September 5, 2018.
  7. "Safety Last! (1923) - Notes -". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved June 2, 2018.
  8. "6 Dangerous Stunts of the Silent Movie Era". August 4, 2011. Retrieved June 2, 2018.
  9. "The Screen", The New York Times, April 2, 1923
  10. "The National Guide to Motion Pictures Saves Your Picture Time and Money". Photoplay. New York: Photoplay Publishing Company. June 1923. Retrieved August 21, 2015.
  11. "World of Comedy". May 12, 1962. Retrieved June 2, 2018.
  12. "Back to the Future". Archived from the original on March 4, 2012. Retrieved December 30, 2011.
  13. "Safety Last", Criterion Collection, June 18, 2013
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