Harold vs. the Clock

Later this month, TCM is unveiling a package of Harold Lloyd films, which will include debut screenings of some rarities from the early end of his career. I was asked to contribute some material to the website to help promote and document this Lloyd festival, and in the course of fulfilling that assignment I found myself writing a lot of material that just didn’t fit the specific needs of TCM’s website, so I’ll be letting the excess Lloyd stuff spill over here to Movie Morlocks over the next several weeks.

This week concerns Safety Last, which will be screening on May 23 and is coming out imminently as a deluxe Criterion Collection Blu Ray. It is of course the film from that image comes, the most famous icon of all silent comedy:

Safety Last by Harold Lloyd

And, as it happens, there’s a story behind that image.

In this blog I recently described silent slapstick as the art of acrobatic men getting hurt. And I stand by that definition–but the key word there is “hurt.” Slapstick could be very painful, and in the case of Harold Lloyd, disfiguring. He lost several fingers off his right hand to an accidental explosion during a promotional photo shoot around the time he made the transition to two-reel shorts, and wore a prosthetic hand ever after to hide the injury.

There are several interesting facts wrapped up in this incident–one of which is the extent to which Lloyd marked out the moment of his graduation to two-reelers and onward as the professional history he embraced, preserved, and celebrated. Which meant that, as a practical matter, he marked the moment of his injury as the dividing line between his embryonic early career and his “true” career. Next week we’ll explore some of that early career, and how it’s been effaced, but this week let’s just make note of the fact that Lloyd implicitly accepted this injury as a defining moment in his professional development, and also scrupulously kept it secret from the entire world.

Slapstick_Lloyd_06

He needed to keep audiences from worrying about the consequences of his thrill-making activities, and to preserve the myth that he did his own stunts.

And that’s the other key point I want to call out here: it was a myth. There are times, such as in the climactic chase finale of Speedy, when he resorted to special effects trickery to accomplish insane stunts that couldn’t really be done for real. And as I’ve previously blogged about, when he served as a producer for other comedians, he was happy to resort to process shots and special effects for even mundane stunts that probably could have been done for real.

Then there’s the fact that even when he appears to be doing his own stunts, he employed special effects and stunt doubles. And that brings us to Safety Last.

Safety Last by Harold Lloyd

Safety Last is about a series of improbable circumstances that compel Harold Lloyd to climb a skyscraper by hand. The imagery of him dangling from the skyscraper’s clock face has since been burned into our cultural consciousness so thoroughly that masses of people know that image without having ever seen the movie from which it came.
In fact, at no point was Harold Lloyd’s life ever at risk. The famous clock face scene, and all close ups of Lloyd clamboring up the side of the building, were staged on a scale model recreation of the building, constructed on a bridge. The camera accurately recorded the view of the city down below, implying that these events took place at a dangerous height, but in fact Lloyd was only ever mere feet above the ground at any time.

For long shots, where a person is unambiguously grappling with the building by hand, a stunt artist was used. And his identity and presence was kept secret, just like the injury to Lloyd’s hand.

To promote the completed film, Lloyd went on tour, making personal appearances across the country in major locations, including Chicago. Upon his arrival in Chicago to publicize Safety Last, local officials met the comedian and informed him that they’d cooked up a local publicity stunt they were pretty proud of: they’d arranged to have Lloyd climb the recently built Wrigley Tower in downtown Chicago and ceremonially smash a bottle of champagne on the newly installed clock face! Just like in the movie!

Safety Last by Harold Lloyd

Harold Lloyd stared at these madmen in astonishment. As soon he realized they were serious, and genuinely expected him to do this, he tried to explain that as a professional artist he has to pay for insurance coverage, and if he tried to climb up an actual skyscraper with his bare hands he would void his insurance coverage.

This line of argument got him nowhere. Who wants to listen to Harold Lloyd talk about insurance? The Chicago publicity team just heard “blah blah blah.”

They could tell the movie star was being prickly about their perfectly good idea, so they said they had a backup plan they’d put together just in case: they had a stuntman on hand who would be dressed in identical clothing, and he’d do the climb and swap places with Lloyd at the top, so Lloyd could do the christening with the champagne himself (let’s just note that this “idea” too seems to have been cribbed from the movie, in which Lloyd’s character proposes the same switcheroo).

By this point it was clear that the publicity guys had actually gathered a crowd (they claimed that 10,000 people were on hand to witness this insanity) and members of the press, and everyone was waiting for Harold Lloyd to climb the Wrigley Tower.  But even the hired stuntman could see this was a lunatic idea: “Gentlemen, I need the money but I don’t want to commit suicide.”  And with that the stuntman went home.

The publicity team looked expectantly at Lloyd.  ”What are you going to do?”

Ever resourceful, Lloyd took a megaphone and stood on the roof of a taxi.  He got the crowd’s attention and explained what a poorly thought out plan their city leaders had cooked up, and how everyone with a lick of sense knew it was madness to try to climb the Wrigley Building by hand.  Being a professional entertainer, Lloyd told this story well, turning it into a comic bit all its own.

Harold Lloyd

Lloyd later said, “We got tremendous play in all the Chicago papers, more than if we had gone through with the stunt.”

14 Responses Harold vs. the Clock
Posted By Betty Lou Spence : May 11, 2013 8:57 am

Thanks for the article. Harold Lloyd is great. I’ve been wanting to read a good biography of Lloyd and you seem like a good person to ask. Any suggestions?

Posted By Betty Lou Spence : May 11, 2013 8:57 am

Thanks for the article. Harold Lloyd is great. I’ve been wanting to read a good biography of Lloyd and you seem like a good person to ask. Any suggestions?

Posted By davidkalat : May 11, 2013 12:04 pm

Of the books that actually exist, I’d lean towards Tom Dardis’ The Man on the Clock (and today’s anecdote comes from the book, by the way), but I don’t think the really definitive biography of Lloyd has yet been written. Keaton and Chaplin have both benefitted from updated “second generation” biographies that built on the research of the past, whereas the Lloyd books are all “first generation.” Also, hampering any serious study of Lloyd is the fact that a huge chunk of his most formative early career has been unavailable for review–but that’s next week’s post so tune in next Saturday to find out what I mean.

Posted By davidkalat : May 11, 2013 12:04 pm

Of the books that actually exist, I’d lean towards Tom Dardis’ The Man on the Clock (and today’s anecdote comes from the book, by the way), but I don’t think the really definitive biography of Lloyd has yet been written. Keaton and Chaplin have both benefitted from updated “second generation” biographies that built on the research of the past, whereas the Lloyd books are all “first generation.” Also, hampering any serious study of Lloyd is the fact that a huge chunk of his most formative early career has been unavailable for review–but that’s next week’s post so tune in next Saturday to find out what I mean.

Posted By Jamie N : May 13, 2013 4:45 am

This article features a great story surrounding an equally great film. I know that Harold Lloyd’s work is well known to audiences that love classic and silent cinema, such as people who watch TCM. But it seems that his name recognition with more casual viewers doesn’t exist in the same way it does for his contemporaries (e.g. Chaplin and Keaton), although Lloyd’s popularity was arguably much greater at the time. Have you had the same observation, and if so, why do you believe he is so overlooked?

Posted By Jamie N : May 13, 2013 4:45 am

This article features a great story surrounding an equally great film. I know that Harold Lloyd’s work is well known to audiences that love classic and silent cinema, such as people who watch TCM. But it seems that his name recognition with more casual viewers doesn’t exist in the same way it does for his contemporaries (e.g. Chaplin and Keaton), although Lloyd’s popularity was arguably much greater at the time. Have you had the same observation, and if so, why do you believe he is so overlooked?

Posted By robbushblog : May 14, 2013 12:25 am

I will be looking forward to this series of Harold Lloyd articles. I will also be looking forward to the Criterion Blu-ray of Safety Last too.

Posted By robbushblog : May 14, 2013 12:25 am

I will be looking forward to this series of Harold Lloyd articles. I will also be looking forward to the Criterion Blu-ray of Safety Last too.

Posted By Psyklist : May 14, 2013 4:38 am

Betty Lou, perhaps the first book to read about Harold Lloyd is written by the man himself! His autobiography is entitled “An American Comedy” and was first published in 1928. The softcover version I have is a revised 138-page edition that was republished in 1971 by Dover Publications (ISBN 0486226840). According to the copyright page in this 1971 edition, it is “an unabridged republication, with minor corrections, of the work originally published in 1928… with the title ‘An American Comedy: Acted by Harold Lloyd, Directed by Wesley W. Stout.’ The present edition is published by special arrangement with Harold Lloyd. The present edition includes the following new features: (1) A selection of 37 new illustrations [ie. photos.] [Bringing the total number of photos to 67.] (2) A new index. (3) A new Introductory Note by Richard Griffith. (4) An Appendix containing the text of an interview with Harold Lloyd, ‘The Serious Business of Being Funny,’… Copyright (c) 1969…” I first found the book in my local library. With all its great photos, I liked it so much I bought a copy for myself.

Posted By Psyklist : May 14, 2013 4:38 am

Betty Lou, perhaps the first book to read about Harold Lloyd is written by the man himself! His autobiography is entitled “An American Comedy” and was first published in 1928. The softcover version I have is a revised 138-page edition that was republished in 1971 by Dover Publications (ISBN 0486226840). According to the copyright page in this 1971 edition, it is “an unabridged republication, with minor corrections, of the work originally published in 1928… with the title ‘An American Comedy: Acted by Harold Lloyd, Directed by Wesley W. Stout.’ The present edition is published by special arrangement with Harold Lloyd. The present edition includes the following new features: (1) A selection of 37 new illustrations [ie. photos.] [Bringing the total number of photos to 67.] (2) A new index. (3) A new Introductory Note by Richard Griffith. (4) An Appendix containing the text of an interview with Harold Lloyd, ‘The Serious Business of Being Funny,’… Copyright (c) 1969…” I first found the book in my local library. With all its great photos, I liked it so much I bought a copy for myself.

Posted By Psyklist : May 14, 2013 5:08 am

Sadly, on March 5, 1923, during an advertising stunt for “Safety Last” in New York, “Human Fly” Harry Young was climbing up the Martinique Hotel as a large crowd watched. At the eleventh story he hesitated, appeared to be reaching for a window, and fell eleven stories. His wife, who had lived in fear for several years, was watching from across the street and saw her husband fall.

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=vhtIAAAAIBAJ&sjid=j80MAAAAIBAJ&dq=harold-lloyd%20safety-last&pg=4392%2C5461406

Posted By Psyklist : May 14, 2013 5:08 am

Sadly, on March 5, 1923, during an advertising stunt for “Safety Last” in New York, “Human Fly” Harry Young was climbing up the Martinique Hotel as a large crowd watched. At the eleventh story he hesitated, appeared to be reaching for a window, and fell eleven stories. His wife, who had lived in fear for several years, was watching from across the street and saw her husband fall.

http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=vhtIAAAAIBAJ&sjid=j80MAAAAIBAJ&dq=harold-lloyd%20safety-last&pg=4392%2C5461406

Posted By Betty Lou Spence : May 15, 2013 7:55 pm

David and Psyklist- thanks for the suggestions. Jamie- I think one of the reasons Lloyd is overlooked is that his films weren’t available for a while, but I could be wrong. He also unfortunately seems to be less critically acclaimed than Keaton and Chaplin, so his films aren’t shown in film classes and so students don’t become familiar with his works and the cycle repeats.

Posted By Betty Lou Spence : May 15, 2013 7:55 pm

David and Psyklist- thanks for the suggestions. Jamie- I think one of the reasons Lloyd is overlooked is that his films weren’t available for a while, but I could be wrong. He also unfortunately seems to be less critically acclaimed than Keaton and Chaplin, so his films aren’t shown in film classes and so students don’t become familiar with his works and the cycle repeats.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies