Posted by David Kalat on May 11, 2013
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:
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
Lloyd later said, “We got tremendous play in all the Chicago papers, more than if we had gone through with the stunt.”
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